Aboriginal Vestiges of Garret Mountain

by Max Schrabisch
From the Passaic County Historical Society Publication, September 14, 1929


Max Schrabisch

Abundance of Prehistoric Relics Along Passaic River

To the student of North Jersey prehistory, the tract of land comprising the City of Paterson and its environs is of considerable significance.  Not so long ago, it was replete with the cultural products of the people of the vanished race so that it was an easy task to determine by means of these remains, not only the localities they once frequented, but also to ascertain, from their character and relative abundance, whether they indicated campsites or villages.  Today, however, many of these interesting spots have been effaced or become all but unrecognizable either in consequence of a thoroughgoing disturbance of the original surface features or because of the multifarious objects of primitive industry, once serving to identify them, have for the most part been gobbled up by curio hunters.

Early Investigations

In the course of a survey, begun as far back as the year 1900 and continued for a decade, the writer located no less than 200 Indian lodge or camp sites along with six large settlements or villages, scattered thru Passaic River Valley from Horseneck Bridge to Passaic.  The work of reconnaissance, which covered both the land adjoining the river and the territory stretching away from it for miles, was practically completed by 1906, with the result that very few if any additional sites have since been discovered by others.  In those days and for a long time afterwards the writer was the sole investigator of the archaeology of the region, and as for collecting he found within a few years, more than 4,000 specimens of various types, affording a fairly complete conception of the character of the material culture attained by these genuine Americans prior to the advent of the white interloper.  Yet, even now, the old camping grounds so far as they still exist, have not quite become depleted of their treasures, as is evidenced by the fact that fresh ones are being turned up after each ploughing, though, it is true, at an ever-decreasing rate.

Indian Camp Sites Within Paterson

From earliest times man has been attracted by river valleys and that for weighty reasons.  In the first place, the river was a source of potential food supply in the shape of fish, most welcome as supplementing a monotonous meat diet or as a substitute for such when the game was scarce.  In the second place, most valleys are well adapted to human habitation, being less exposed to the extreme rigors of the climate and offering, moreover, no end of ideal camp sites, added to which advantages they were the natural avenues of communication, facilitating travel both by land and water.  Small wonder, then, that the valley of the Passaic, but more especially its lower portion, should have been greatly favored by the redskins; in fact, almost as much as the valleys of such rivers as the Hudson and Delaware.

Accordingly, in the district here under review, i.e., from the Falls of the Passaic to the City of Passaic, both banks of the river exhibited abundant traces of prehistoric abodes, invariably occupying the glacial terraces, that skirt it for miles, as well as the knolls and ridges along its effluents for some distance from their mouth.  All told, some eighty sites were noted within or very near the boundaries of Paterson, but there is no way of telling as to how many have been blotted out ever since the white conqueror entered upon the scene.  As a matter of fact, all of the sites, susceptible of identification at this latter day, lay close to the river or on the shore of its tributaries, such as Oldham, Goffle or Wagaraw brooks.  However, as just intimated, there can be no question that additional ones dotted the more or less level stretch of country between the river and Garret Mountain, being mostly situated, we may presume, on the banks of some of the small streams, originally flowing into Passaic River, but now extinct or out of sight.

Tell-tale Marks of Garret Mountain

Considering the multiplicity of camp sites hereabouts and the profusion of cultural vestiges recovered therefrom, betokening frequent, if not prolonged occupation of this territory, the savage, roving hunter that he was, could not help invading Garret Mountain, chiefly in quest of game, and consequently to leave behind many a tell-take sign reminiscent of his whilom presence within its rocky solitudes.  And, indeed, an exhaustive search of its northeasterly section furnished ample proof that he was wont to penetrate its rough precincts, then largely cloaked with a stand of magnificent evergreens like hemlocks and pines.  Yet, as might have been expected, the evidence of his visits to this hill was quite negligible when compared with conditions observed down in the valley near the river.  In fact, the paucity of remains extant was such as almost to escape detection and it was only thru the closest scrutiny that such remains could be discovered.

Exploring its elevated surfaces as with a fine-tooth comb, the writer succeeded in locating a score or so of chipping places, as revealed by chunks of raw material and artificially fractured chips of quartz and chert, flint being almost entirely absent, that lay concentrated within narrowly circumscribed patches, averaging fifteen feet square.  Presumably, it was at these spots that the red hunter squatted down for the purpose of replenishing his stock of stone arrow points or spearheads, preparatory to the chase.  Here and there, amid the scant culture debris, an occasional arrow point was detected, lying on the bare rock or partly buried in the thin soil.

All these places were on the summit of the mountain, between Stony Road on the west and the cliffs on the east, and from Garret Rock on the north to Riffle Camp Road, near the Amusement Park, on the south.  The southerly part of the mountain, all the way to Great Notch, and its westerly slopes, between Riffle Camp Road and Passaic River, have until now received but little attention, but, so far as studied, they seem to be devoid of prehistoric vestiges.  On the other hand, the presumption is in favor of assuming that careful investigation will reveal the existence of such signs in as much as it admits of no doubt that the savages had traversed these parts numberless times while in pursuit of the quarry, and that they were, in fact, familiar with their every nook and corner.

Aside from the chipping places, so called, there were discovered three rock shelters of archaeological moment, viz., natural rock structures resorted to by the aborigine for the sake of the protection they provided from the elements.  They all lie below the brow of the mountain at or near the foot of the crags, to wit, the northernmost is in the ravine west of Garret Rock, some sixty meters south of the tracks of the Delaware, Lackawanna and Western Railroad; the other two are back of Lambert’s Castle, at the base of the eastward-facing perpendicular cliffs, directly beneath the Observatory, which is perched on their very verge.  Being major sites, they yielded a more diversified assortment of relics, consisting of fragments of pottery and bones of various animals, along with the usual chips and arrow points, the latter in more or less perfect state of preservation.  It is altogether probably that remains like bones and potsherds were anciently discarded also at the chipping sites on the exposed ground of the mountain top, but, being of a perishable nature, they long since have weathered away under the influence of atmospheric agencies, though seeming to be well preserved in the soil constituting the floor of the rock coverts.

Situation of Chipping Stations

We shall now briefly discuss the numerous chipping sites, just referred to, as well as the stray finds encountered here and there, pointing out their whereabouts and the surrounding topographic features.  It will be seen that they were scattered broadcast over the section here under consideration, but, as a rule, the culture debris, there concentrated, was of such little variety and in quantities so inconsiderable as to create the impression of fleeting or transitory sojourn on the part of the redman.

There is two sites, close together, on the top of and along the edge of the steep ledges that bound Garret Rock ravine to the west, about half a mile due south of Grand Street reservoir, just above Dixon Avenue.  This ravine, it is to be recalled ascends from the railroad tracks, passing the lofty promontory of basaltic rock, known as Garret Rock.  In the rainy season, it is watered by a stream which rises in a swampy patch of ground a quarter o a mile uphill and it originally discharged into the Passaic below the Falls, but was later made to drain into Morris Canal.  On top of Garret Rock, some twenty steps back of the precipice, the writer picked up, years ago, a small arrow point of cherty material.  The rugged beauty of this outjutting shoulder of rock is quite impressive, and one may fancy it as having been one of the Indians’ favorite outlooks centuries before any white man saw it.

A quantity of chips was met with at the northern extremity of the high crag, which rises southeast of Garret Rock and affords a splendid view of Paterson and the hills to the north.  Immediately south of it, on the very crest of the knob, which dominates the high-level plain on the south, once the site of the Dalzell farm, a broken quartz point was found embedded in the sparse soil, filling the hollows in the rock.  Being not associated with any chips or flakes, it was a stray find.  Another isolated implement, namely, a perfectly wrought notched arrow point, of chert, was gathered near the edge of the bluff, some 500 meters southeast of the last-named place.

(As though to emphasize the writer’s statement concerning the occurrence of quite a few scattered artifacts on Garret Mountain, he picked up, the day after finishing this article, a slate arrow head, an inch and a half long, at a point some 300 meters northwest of the Observatory, near the swale drained by a streamlet, flowing into the lower end of Barbour’s Pond.  It is of crude workmanship owing to the refractory nature of the material used.)

Some distance to the west there is a group of chipping places on the northern bank of the above-mentioned streamlet, which winds along the foot of the ledges and debouches into Barbour’s Pond.  In a rocky hollow, a little to the east of this brook and south of the ledges, just alluded to, there was found an exquisitely fashioned spearhead, of chert, about three inches in length. In the immediate vicinity of the Observatory, along the brink of the sheer rock walls, there are indications of several chipping stations.  Two of the rock shelters, to be dealt with subsequently, are directly beneath these sites, at the bottom of the scarps.

South of these stations, the upland slopes, rimming a lodgy depression east and west, disclosed a series of chipping sites.  While this depression is now usually dry, holding water only after heavy downpours of rain, conditions were no doubt quite different in aboriginal days.  Then all the land was densely timbered, this having the effect of conserving the surface waters by retarding the process of evaporation.  Hence, before the cutting of the timber, this gully, most likely, contained water at all seasons, rendering this locality attractive to the savage and explaining the occurrence of so many sites thereabouts.  Some of these places were so thickly strewn with chips and nodules of raw material as to suggest regular lodge sites, resorted to repeatedly.  Altogether, several hundred flakes, mostly of chert and quartz, were here noted, along with three arrow points in good condition and several broken ones.  Another site was disclosed on the east bank of Barbour’s Pond, at its upper end, near the inlet of a small stream.  Originally, this site was on the bank of the stream, now feeding the pond (which is an artificial sheet of water made by damming it up).

What may have been a cache or hoard, containing some twenty arrow points, was unearthed years ago on what used to be Rea’s Place, midway between Rifle Camp Road (here climbing the hill) and the base of the escarpment.   However, the only station of some importance, occurring within the confines of Garret Mountain, appears to have been situated on the shores of the pond, along Stony Road, near the schoolhouse.  It is reported that in the past quite an assemblage of stone tools of various types was ploughed up in the fields bounding the pond.  If so, this site may be presumed to have lain near an Indian trail, coinciding roughly with the present highway, since many of our modern roads are known to have been lain out along the line of prehistoric paths.

The Rock Haunts

Of far greater significance than the chipping places are the three rock cabins located by the writer on the upper flanks of the mountain, in the year 1911.  The northernmost of these lies in the gorge, already alluded to, about a stone’s throw west of the bold outcrop, named Garret Rock.  It is a covert partaking of the nature of a cave, in as much as it is underneath a detached block of basaltic rock of huge size, which time out of mind, probably during the vicissitudes of the Ice Age, had broken off the face of some neighboring cliff and come to lodge in the center of the ravine near the spring run, which anciently coursed down its boulder-strewn bed to join the Passaic, but discharges now into what is left of Morris Canal, as previously remarked.

When cleared of debris, this shelter resembled a small cavern, some ten feet long by six feet wide, with a roof barely five feet above the floor.  Its examination, which was most arduous owing to its having been choked or filled up with tons of rock detritus, yielded nine flint blades, averaging four inches in length, scores of chips, of flint, quartz, slate and chert, a pile of bones, belonging to deer, rabbit, muskrat and opossum, together with fragments of beaver teeth and some unio shells or fresh water mussels, scientifically known as “unio fluviatilis.”  An ancient hearth was identified along the opening or entrance, containing heat-cracked stones, ashes and charcoal.  A few small bits of pottery, unornamented and of a reddish hue, were likewise dug up, probably attesting the erstwhile presence of squaws.

Shelters Near Lambert’s Castle

Back of Lambert’s Castle, between it and the beetling crags, two rock haunts were discovered, bearing witness to their use by the redskins, as manifested by the familiar telltale signs.  They differ markedly in configuration in that the smaller of the two owes its origin to a tilted ledge, while the other is a sort of rocky passageway in the shape of an inverted “V”, due to a large mass of rock leaning obliquely against the vertical cliff, so as to leave an entrance at opposite sides.

The former structure is some twenty meters distant from the cliff and it faces northeast, with the overhanging tilted ledge jutting out some six feet and giving rise to a shelter about ten feet long.  Although it was carefully dug up, the soil in the sheltered  space between the roof yielded nothing more pretentious than a few chips of flint and chert associated, it is true, with five fragments of worked flint, which were found to match precisely, forming a slender fish spear, over three inches long.  These fragments did not lie close together, but were scattered thru more than a cubic foot of dirt.

Regarding the second covert at the foot of the scarps, immediately below the Observatory, it proved to be much richer in cultural remains than the former, apparently because, structurally, it was a far more desirable place, providing full protection from wind and rain and. withal, it was much larger measuring twenty feet long by six feet wide.  Yet, even so, its archaeological contents were decidedly paltry in comparison with many other sites of this description, for its examination brought to light only four broken arrow points, a score of chips, a dozen or so potsherds, all of them plain, yellow in color and not larger than a silver dollar, bones of deer and a few unio shells.  Along the wall of the parent cliff, near the southern entrance, there was a mass of dark earth, about four feet long by two feet wide, with a depth or more than a feet, in which were buried fire-split pebbles, burnt bones and what appeared to be ashes, all of which plainly denoted a fireplace.  That this shelter had occasionally at least, harbored female visitors, may be deduced from the occurrence of pottery pieces in the soil, since, from what is known, no brave was likely to encumber himself with earthenware pots or other household utensils.

Judging form the lay of the land, as it presents itself today, a serious drawback to the habitability of this place seems to have been lack of water in the shape of a spring, stream or even swamp.  In fact, the topography of this particular locality at the top of a long slope is such as to incline one to the belief that even at the Indian’s time, when the primeval forest stretched away unbroken for a thousand miles, there was no potable water conveniently at hand, the nearest supply having probably been on the brow of the mountain northwest of the Observatory where there is even today a boggy piece of ground drained by a spring run.  A condition such as this accounts satisfactorily for the apparently infrequent occupation of this covert, structurally desirable though it was, and consequently for the fewness of aboriginal objects found under its roof.

Why the Redman Visited the Mountain

In view of the evidence set forth in the foregoing, it is clear that the ancient inhabitants of this part of Passaic River Valley were in the habit of visiting Garret Mountain and that, doubtless, quite often.  Nor can there be any question that their chief incentive for doing so was the lure of the chase or the prospect of procuring a goodly supply venison.  Apart from the fleet-footed deer, which was their favorite game, they repaired hither to hunt bear, wildcat and catamount, the pelts of which were in great demand for making blankets and clothing to defy the cold of Winter.  Mountainous districts have always been the true habitat of furry tribes such as these and Garret Mountain in particular, furnished dens galore in which they could hide during the day or hibernate thru the long Winter months.

Routes of Approach to the Mountain

We may be reasonable certain that those who ascended Garret Mountain hailed from the camps studding the banks of Passaic River and those of its affluents.  Being now on speculative ground, the writer makes bold to venture a few guesses on the strength of the data available.  He has in mind five routes, all of which easily negotiable, by which the prehistoric huntsman was likely to have made the climb:

1. It would seem that coming from near the Falls, he would have traveled somewhere along the route followed by New Street or thru the hollow winding uphill south of the Canal bridge.

2. Another path might have been up the gully west of Garret Rock, past the cave, described above, thence threading the stream to the top of the hill.

3. Hardly any doubts obtains as to an aboriginal path mounting the hills at a point back of Lambert’s Castle, where there is an easy gradient.  Considering that near this spot there was observed a relative massing of sites, namely, two rock shelters at the foot of the crags and numerous chipping stations on their summit, we may not be wrong in assuming that this trail, if it actually existed, was one of the most frequently trodden.

4. A short distance north of the Rea mansion there is another likely route, in use at the present time, by which the summit can be gained via a sort of natural stairs.  Emerging on the higher levels, it comes out in the midst of a group of chipping places, occupying both sides of the long hollow or depression south of the Observatory.

5. Lastly, there was probably a path crossing Valley Road near the Belle Vista M. E. Church, traversing the long acclivity in the direction of Garret Mountain Amusement Park, at which point it may have forked, one arm passing southwest toward the present Stony Road, the other turning sharply north or to the right continuing along the brow of the hill.

That there were many other points of approach, is to be taken for granted, for the mountain can be climbed at almost any point save where escarpments, fissured and weather-worn, interpose impassable barriers.

The Former Occupants of This Region

When the European intruder, in response to cold-blooded self-interest, politely called “expediency,” took forcible possession of the land, disinheriting its rightful owners, whose forefathers, for unnumbered centuries, had held it in undisputed sway, he found this part of North Jersey inhabited by a group of tribes or chieftaincies, all of whom were members of the Unami division of the Lenni Lenape.  The area south and west of the Passaic, from its great bend, opposite the mouth of Wagaraw Brook, to Nutley on the south and from the latter place westward to the vicinity of Pine Brook, was probably all Acquackanonck territory.

Judging by the members of their former activities hereabouts, they would seem to have been a fairly populous clan.  In this connection it is to be borne in mind, however, that the numerous camping grounds, noted throughout the tract, had not been occupied simultaneously at any one time, as there were not enough Indians to do so.  Although, at first blush, conveying the impression of a large population, these sites are attributable to a very thin population, amounting probably to no more than a few hundred individuals, who, true to their nomadic proclivities and the exigencies of a precarious existence, were frequently sifting about within their allotted district, even as their forebears had done for countless centuries.

Like other primitive peoples, they subsisted largely on fishing and hunting.  That they had made some progress in the arts of husbandry is evinced by the discovery of such tools as stone hoes, pestles and mortars.  The vegetables most often raised, were maize, beans and squashes.

There is a certain amount of evidence in favor of the assumption that the Acquackanoncks had their Winter quarters ‘round about Fairfield.  It is a tract well shielded from boreal blasts, being in the lee of Towaco or Hook Mountain, to the west and north of it.  Innumerable artifacts, ascribable to aboriginal culture and bespeaking an intense occupation in scores of camps and village sites, have been recovered on these fertile lowlands, which still continue to be the eldorado of relic hunters.  Certain it is that the above assumption would go far toward explaining the extraordinary abundance of prehistoric remains noted within this sheltered area.

Neighboring Tribes

North of the Acquackanoncks, on the opposite side of Passaic River, dwelt the Pompton Indians, having their main villages at Pompton Plains, Pequannock and Mountainview.  According to tradition, a body of Wappingers, once residing near Fishkill, Dutchess County, N.Y., had wandered this way early in the seventeenth century, settling among the Pomptons.

The Tappans, who had their headquarters in the neighborhood of Nyack, on the northeast, seem to have extended their hunting grounds inland down to the Passaic, at its great bend.  Adjoining them were the Hackensacks – their domain reaching south as far as Newark and including probably parts of Staten Island.  Passaic River appears to have formed the boundary line between them and the Acquackanoncks.

All these chieftaincies were closely affiliated, having an identical industy or culture and speaking the same Unami dialect.  Each of them, however, lived in a well defined area of their own, large enough to support all its members and though evidently on the best of terms, each had its own hunting district, with rights not to be encroached upon by the others.