They call it the Stone Church. It’s a natural cavern above a brook in the woods off of Route 22 in Dover Plains, New York. Its entrance, formed by giant boulders, shaped haphazardly over the eons, forms an upside down “V” that gives it the appearance of a steeple.
I visited the church shortly before sunset on a summer’s day. At that time there was something solemn and haunting about the place, which perhaps is only fitting. Though beautiful today, the Stone Church has a history marred by death and betrayal.
It was here, according to tradition, in the year of 1637, that the Pequot War came to its gruesome conclusion.
The war was fought over the fur trade and trading access to various colonies. The Pequot Tribe had long feuded with the Mohegan Tribe over fur gathering territories within the Connecticut River Valley. By the mid 1630s, the skirmishes and raids between the two had escalated into full-fledged war, with the British colonists siding with the Mohegan Tribe.
In early 1637, in response to a series of Pequot raids on Connecticut towns, European settlers raised a militia led by John Mason. That May, Mason led a force of 400 fighting man on an attack on a Pequot fort in present-day Mystic, Connecticut.
Thanks to a feint by Mason, Pequot Chief Sassacus believed the English militia had left the state. Due to this faulty intelligence, Sassacus and 150 of his warriors left Mystic in order to raid Hartford, which they believed was unprotected, never realizing disaster was approaching their home.
With the bulk of the Pequot’s fighting force away, Mystic was occupied by an estimated 600 or 700 people, most of them women, children and elderly men. In what is known as the Mystic Massacre, the majority of these people were killed when Mason and his force attacked. Only seven survived to be taken prisoner, and an additional seven escaped to the woods.
With no villages to return to, the Pequots fled west across the state in small bands, hoping to get help from tribes in present day New York and Long Island. The British caught up with a large group of the fleeing Pequots in a swamp near present-day Fairfield, Connecticut. In the ensuing battle, known as the Fairfield Swamp Fight, 180 Pequot men were killed or captured.
Sassacus escaped with as many as eighty men and made it across current state lines to New York, where they sought the help of the Mohawk Tribe. To gain favor with the colonists, the Mohawk’s denied the remnants of the Pequot Tribe shelter, attacking them instead. Tradition holds the final battle took place at the Stone Church, where in front of nature’s natural alter Sassacus, the last chief of the Pequot tribe, was killed and scalped.
Perhaps Sassacus and his hunted men sought shelter within the cavern from the elements. Perhaps they believed it was a tactical spot where a few could resist against many for days, or perhaps Sassacus never actually made it there. We’ll probably never know for sure, but we do know Sassacus was killed in the area and that his scalp was sent to Hartford, to further strengthen the allegiance between the Mohawks and the Connecticut settlers.
Given its violent history, the Stone Church provides a surprisingly peaceful and beautiful place to visit. There’s no parking at the park’s entrance; instead, visitors park in a variety of spots nearby in town, including The Tabor Wing House at 3128 Route 22, Dover Plains.
Since at least the 1800s, the Stone Church has attracted admirers and has been a local tourist destination. In and of itself, it is a fascinating destination to visit, but its harrowing history provides another layer of intrigue and solemnity. To me, it is not a church but a tomb, and an eye-catching reminder of an early piece of history many of us, myself included, know too little about.
In early 1907, Richard Maher, a former Town Clerk in Dover Plains, was similarly moved by the natural attraction and published a poem called “Requiem to the Stone Church” in a book he wrote called Historic Dover. “It has seen the Red Man fade and die like some exotic flower,” Maher writes. “Its melodious stream has chanted a requiem over his generations dead and gone/and still the ancient arch guards the wild ravine, and the never-tiring stream… ‘Men may come and men may go/But I go on forever, ever/I go on forever.’”1
1. Richard Maher, Historic Dover, (1907), Town of Dover Website, accessed December 6, 2015, http://townofdoverny.us/Stone_Church.cfm