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Published On: Sat, Jan 14th, 2012

Searching for the Witness Stone

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“I have got to be out of my mind,” I thought as I trudged thru knee-deep snow in search of one of Kingston’s “missing” Witness Stones. Leading the way was my cousin who said he had finally located the stone monument after several days of searching. After 15 or 20 minutes of slip-sliding up ice covered hills and squeezing through a tangle of trees and brush we practically fell over the ancient granite marker. It was hidden amid a thicket of trees and saplings spaced not much further apart than a picket fence.

This particular stone had both historical and family significance. The boundary marker sat in the middle of what had once been our grandfather’s farm – about 50 acres of pasture, woods, and wetlands straddling the Kingston and Plympton line off Route 106. I had a dim recollection of my grandfather pointing out the stone to me while he took me on walks around the farm when I was a young child. Even back then, the fields were in the process of returning to forest as baby evergreens and small shrubs were sprouting everywhere in what had once been grassy pastures.

Scattered around Kingston along side the roads leading in and out of town, sharp eyed travelers may notice stone markers called road stones. Some have been in place hundreds of years and are part of a chain of markers delineating the town’s legal boundary lines. Road Stones are little more than the visible servants of the mostly hidden Witness Stones. The law requires “Witness Stones” or corner markers to be erected at every angle or corner of the town’s boundary. Witness Stones serve as reference points by which all other lines are checked. State law (M.G.L. Chapter 42: Section 2), and custom require that the town fathers view or witness the stone’s location at least once every five years and mark the year of their viewing with paint.

The formal stone checking is known as a perambulation (i.e., to walk around a territory in order to officially assert and record its boundaries). This ‘official’ hike through fields, woods, and swamps owes its existence as much to ancient traditions as it does to current state law.

In pre-colonial America and in Europe during the Middle Ages, natural features such as rock outcrops, streams and solitary trees (sometimes called ‘Gospel Oaks’) were often used as boundary markers. To avoid boundary disputes, it was important that the location of boundary lines were well known and understood. Before Global Positioning Satellites and the US Geological Survey which mapped America, the position of town and parish boundaries were passed on by word of mouth.

The law requiring that town fathers perambulate the boundary of their community has its origins in a European tradition known as “The Beating of the Bounds.”
Sometime each spring, usually between the fifth Sunday after Easter and Ascension Day, parish priests and parsons, in the company of village elders and other “worthy persons”, along with parishioners of the local church would gather to walk around the parish boundaries.

Often the preacher would pause and dispense a bit of gospel while giving blessings at the various markers along the route. Sometimes sprigs of oak foliage, elm or willow wands were used to beat the boundary markers, driving home the blessings while driving away evil spirits.

This semi-holy and quasi-civic holiday was frequently lubricated by liberal quantities of food and spirits. Besides a grand excuse for a holiday, the walk served a serious purpose: to keep fresh in the local collective memory the exact location of a boundary that may never have been written on any kind of map. (Remember, this was back in the days when literacy was the exception and not the rule.)

The event was much more than just show and tell. Very often, to reinforce and drive home the message, young men (the elders of the future) would be given a ‘memorable’ experience at particular points along the route. For instance a boy might be told to ‘feel the heat’ of a certain boundary stone. As soon as he had touched the stone, he would be grabbed and his finger given a mighty yank – as a reminder of the stone and its importance. There is even a recorded instance when, “a boy had his ears pulled and was ‘set on his head’ upon a marker-stone.”

Knowing, understanding, and walking the bounds of a town created a strong sense of civic identity – especially when the instruction was repeated as a life long ritual. In addition to simple civic pride there were powerful economic implications in defining and defending community borders and among those were the rights to common pasture lands and the collection of firewood.

The church’s interest in defining and preserving the boundaries of towns and parishes was based in the ultimate practicality. Money. In mediaeval times, the church had a right to a ‘tithe’ farmers, land owners and peasants: a tenth of all crops and produce went to the parson as a tribute to the church.

The use of natural landmarks and features as boundary markers was a common practice and prone to error. “Great Oaks” died, stone walls could be moved and buildings could burn. Such was the case in Kingston in 1999 when Nick’s Rock, one of the markers of the Plymouth and Kingston line was destroyed by a careless sand and gravel operation.

Imagine yourself today trying to produce a map of Kingston’s town lines using this 1726 order for, “Ye Bonds Of The Town of Kingston” between Kingston and Plympton: “…unto two red oak Trees, marked with Stones about them, in the Line of Plympton Township… unto a great black Oak, formerly marked… North, forty-seven Degrees and a half westerly, about four hundred and eight Rods, to a Heap of Stones, on a Cleft Rock, and thence…” Over time, permanent markers such as “Witness Stones” were pressed into service to replace the hodge-podge of natural features which used to define to bounds of the town.

But the law requires that the markers be inspected and marked once every five years. The Witness Stone on my Grandfather’s farm, hidden and overgrown in a thicket of trees, shows no sign of paint – proof that, in at least in the winter of 2005, the selectmen or their appointees gave up and skipped over the stone.

ORDER FOR YE BONDS OF THE TOWN OF KINGSTONE (DEFINING CORNERS 11, 12, 13, 14 15)

*** unto two red oak Trees, marked with Stones about them, in the Line of Plympton Township, by the northwest Side of the old Country Road, that leads from Plimouth Township to Middleborough; and the Line between Plimpton & Plimouth North Precinct, North about seven degrees westerly, (passing through corner 15) unto a great black Oak, formerly marked, by the southeast Side of a Road Way, near the Hill called Brewer’s Hill, the said Tree beaing a former Bound of Plimpton Township; and from thence, North, forty-seven Degrees and a half westerly, about four hundred and eight Rods, to a Heap of Stones, on a Cleft Rock, and thence, North, about five Degrees westerly, about two hundred and twenty-eight Rods, to a long Stone, set in the Ground, and other Stones laid about it, about three Rods to ye westward of the Old Cellar, which was Thomas Shurtlief’s; and from thence, North, three Degrees westerly, about a Mile and forty-two Rods, to ye west Corner Bound of the Land, which did belong unto Peter West, deceased, being a Pine Tree marked, by Jones River Pond, and from thence, over said Pond, North, eight Degrees westerly, unto the South Corner Bound by Jonathan Crocker’s; ***
[June 2, 1726]  

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  1. Brian K. says:

    Thanks for the story. Just so happens that this morning I applied to our town administrator to become the Town Perambulator! So I’ll be out there this spring with a pot of paint and a map, hopefully with some ‘town fathers’ along to carry the libations 😉 I live in Princeton and we think that the stones are overdue for a witnessing, given your statement about the five year re-visiting period. Did you know that MassDOT has online maps of town witness stones along with GPS coordinates for all of them?