Native Insight: Traces of infamous King Philip’s War scattered throughout Pioneer Valley

  • A great view of Pioneer Valley from Mount Sugarloaf in South Deerfield. RECORDER FILE

Recorder Staff
Friday, September 08, 2017

Walking the dogs daily and letting my thoughts roam, I find myself at some point looking at the hills to the west and north and feeling as though I’m walking inside a large salad bowl that once contained glacial Lake Hitchcock.

My imagination meanders back and forth from images of the lake viewed from above to what this place would have looked like soon after the natural dam in Rocky Hill, Conn., burst some 13,000 years ago, draining the lake and leaving behind a fertile, barren bed that became our Pioneer Valley.

I wonder what the first human eyes, those of Paleoindians, envisioned upon viewing it for the first time in pursuit of caribou or mammoths. I ponder the landscape and how it changed over time, of what was here when the first Europeans “discovered” it. The bordering western hills — known to European founders as the Sunsick or West Mountains — rise to Colrain, Shelburne, Conway, Whately and Hatfield; while those on the north ascend into Leyden, Bernardston and Gill. There, the highlands curl south to form Barton Cove, once a much larger impoundment that reached to the base of the Berkshire foothills, terminating at the Northampton Meadows, where a thermopylae between the Mount Holyoke and Mount Tom ranges squirts the river into a southern basin to complete the Pioneer Valley.

Scattered throughout this fertile valley during the earliest pioneer days of the mid-17th century were Indian villages strategically placed in areas conducive to our indigenous people’s Three Sisters croplands, where corn, beans and squash flourished from the same mounds in cooperative existence. Also, there were sites along the rivers where communal, seasonal fishing activity took place each spring, the best-known among several lesser ones located at the falls South Hadley, Turners Falls, Vernon, Vt., and Shelburne Falls.

Which plops us right down upon this week’s topic: the infamous King Philip’s War “Falls Fight” currently under archaeological investigation by Dr. Kevin McBride, his team and an independent corps of expert metal detectors. This research team, backboned by Connecticut’s Mashantucket-Pequot Museum and funded by the National Parks Service’s American Battlefield Protection Program, is currently mapping the escape route of local militia and Bay Colony soldiers who participated in the May 19, 1676 battle that turned the tide of the bloody war in the favor of New England colonials.

After a slow start this summer, McBride & Co. are now making great gains, having picked up many musket balls near the Wagon Wheel Restaurant in Gill and continuing to find them as they followed the lay-of-the-land retreat route west, across Main Road, over the hill through a shallow gap, and across Fall River to Greenfield. From there, they have continued west across Factory Hollow and are currently picking their way up the slope climbing to the so-called Giknis property, where a butternut squash field leads toward the industrial park off Adams Road. Believing that the squash field is near the site where the colonials tied down their horses, McBride thinks the agricultural plot will likely turn up much more retreat treasure.

Once through the White Ash Swamp and across Bernardston Road, the escape path will lead toward my Greenfield Meadows home and daily walking place. Many of the soldiers seem to have followed Cherry Rum Brook to the Mill Brook confluence with the Green River just downstream from the Greenfield Swimming and Recreation Area off Nashs Mill Road. Near that point, Capt. William Turner took three Indian musket balls that finished him. A monument near the pool approximates where he fell.

Fleeing survivors continued from there on a southerly path toward today’s Wisdom and Upper Road, down the hill to the Deerfield River not far from Red Rocks, and across the river to Old Deerfield and Hatfield. How much of that retreat path will produce treasure from the chase is anyone’s guess, given the residential development, roads and industry traversing the landscape.

Among the militiamen and soldiers fleeing the wee-hour ambush and slaughter was Jonathan Wells — at 16, the youngest soldier — who was wounded on his retreat. Feeling vulnerable, he wandered away from the group of fleeing soldiers and took his own path north, across the so-called Country Farms section of Greenfield to today’s covered bridge at the Pumping Station. There, the landscape forced him west into Greenfield’s Upper Meadows, where I reside. According to his own account repeated many times for many people, including 18th-century historian Rev. Stephen Williams, he hugged the base of the hills back to about Upper Road in Deerfield and across the Deerfield River to the North Meadows. The crossing site is impossible to pinpoint because the river’s course had changed dramatically since 1676, but it was likely near Sheldon Brook’s outflow.

Wells’ path intrigues me, and would likely fascinate anyone in my shoes. The reason is that young Wells probably passed within a stone’s throw of my yard, if not right through it, a fact I often ponder as I walk through my Lake Hitchcock-bowl neighborhood. That’s when I find myself dreaming of long-lost indigenous tales explaining the origin of every mountain nook and cranny, all rivers and streams, plus the swamps and bogs, and the river terraces of a valley landscape I’ve grown to love.

The mystery pulls me in, consumes me … keeps me and many others searching for faint traces and buried narratives. They’re out there if you put your nose to the ground.

Recorder sports editor Gary Sanderson is a senior-active member of the outdoor-writers associations of America and New England. Blog: www.tavernfare.com. Email: gsand53@outlook.com.