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Battle or massacre? Turners delays vote on study grant proposal

This aerial view shows the village of Turners Falls, in the foreground, and the Riverside section of Gill, in the backgroud, the general area around the Great Falls, where colonial militia and Native Americans fought in 1676.

This aerial view shows the village of Turners Falls, in the foreground, and the Riverside section of Gill, in the backgroud, the general area around the Great Falls, where colonial militia and Native Americans fought in 1676.

TURNERS FALLS — Was it a battle or a massacre? Either way, the bloody incident on the banks of the Connecticut River at the Great Falls in 1676, or the question of what to do about it, continues to rankle.

Proponents of a historical study of the battlefield say the event was a pivotal but largely ignored episode in the pre-Revolutionary period King Philip’s War and deserves its place in history.

A renewed effort to secure a grant to study the episode in early colonial history hit a late snag this week after the chairman of the Montague Board of Selectmen removed discussion of the application from the agenda one meeting shy of the application deadline, creating anxiety among those proposing the study.

At first delayed indefinitely, that discussion has been rescheduled to just before the deadline.

Local coordinator David Brule said he had been operating on the belief that the application required a town, in this case Montague, to lend its name to the application and further delay could sink the grant application.

Montague’s involvement is not, as initially presented, a necessity.

The American Battlefield Protection Program accepts applications from nonprofit groups, academic institutions and local, regional, state and tribal governments.

Town Planner Walter Ramsey said the applicant must show they have handled grants before and can manage them. Ramsey said the town brings this experience to the table and nobody else has stepped forward to take the lead.

Brought forward in 2012 by Doug Harris, preservationist for ceremonial landscapes for the Narragansett Indian Tribe and former Rhode Island state archeologist Paul Robinson, the proposal aims to secure a small grant from the National Park Service’s battlefield preservation program to study the existing written and oral records of the battle.

Harris said such a study would spark scholarly interest in the area and proponents have posed the study as a first step toward historical tourism dollars and a possible Native American historical and cultural center in Turners Falls.

Selectmen’s Chairman Mark Fairbrother has been the sole voice of opposition to the grant on the board or in the room since the beginning, voting against the first application two years ago.

Fairbrother opposed the grant on the grounds that most or all of the action took place outside of present-day Montague.

This isn’t in dispute; most of the killing took place on the far bank, in present-day Gill, and over the course of a running fight that may have left a quarter or more of the attackers dead in the surrounding area.

According to historical accounts published in this paper and elsewhere, Capt. William Turner led somewhere between 140 and 160 English militiamen from Hadley against an encampment of multiple tribes on the bank of the Connecticut River by the Great Falls, killing somewhere in the range of 200 to 360 — the majority women, children and the elderly — and in turn lost dozens or about 40 men in a disorganized retreat. Turner himself is supposed to have died near the present-day Green River Swimming and Recreation Area in Greenfield.

So why Montague?

Montague’s most populous village, Turners Falls, is named in honor of Turner and proponents say the native counterattack likely came from encampments on the Montague side of the river, but the primary reason is not the location or the village name.

Harris said the Narragansett tribe has a commitment to Montague due to a 2004 reconciliation ceremony between the town and Native American groups. That ceremony was intended in part to give closure to native groups regarding the name of the village.

“It was Turners Falls, it was Montague that called for the ceremony, that signed the document ... so our initial support, our initial honoring was to the people who signed this document,” Harris said in 2012.

Harris and Robinson requested the town government’s support for the grant, without which they said it would fail. The Board of Selectmen supported the application, 2-1, but the National Park Service ultimately did not award the $40,000 grant.

Brule, formerly of Montague and currently of Erving, said he was appointed by the Board of Selectmen to coordinate the new application and he believes the weaknesses have been fixed.

Speaking after Monday’s meeting, Brule said he has high hopes for the application, but worried that a second postponement of a vote of support could derail the effort. The application is due Jan. 15, and the next weekly selectmen’s meeting is Jan. 13.

Consideration of the application is on the agenda for that meeting, after Brule stood up at Monday’s meeting to ask why his presentation had been removed from the agenda.

“I didn’t want it on the agenda,” Fairbrother said, adding that discussion of an item not on the agenda was inappropriate. Fairbrother told Brule he did not intend to put the item on the agenda for the next meeting, but ultimately agreed to do so at the request of selectmen Michael Nelson and Christopher Boutwell.

Boutwell supported the application in 2012 with then-selectman Patricia Allen. Nelson was not yet on the board.

“My concern is that there has been a consistent pattern of ‘no’ votes on every single thing — every project that has come along — involving Native Americans,” Brule said of Fairbrother’s stance on the issue.

Fairbrother denies the allegations of bias on the issue that have followed him for several years, stemming from a 2008 incident he has said he was not involved in.

“Anyone who (still) thinks I have it in for Native Americans as a group do not know me and have chosen not to listen to anything I have said on the subject at several (selectmen’s) meetings during my tenure there,” Fairbrother wrote. “I thought I have made it clear my views have been shaped by facts on the ground at the airport, the ongoing negative financial consequences of that to the taxpayers of the Town of Montague, and my clear statement that my disagreements have been with a certain few specific individual Tribal leaders, not with Native Americans as a people.”

Fairbrother is a former member of the Montague Airport Commission. Native American groups stalled an airport expansion project over what the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe, the Narragansett Indian Tribe and the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah) say are ceremonial areas. Fairbrother was at the center of a controversy in 2008 surrounding remarks that Native American groups found offensive. Fairbrother said he didn’t make those remarks.

The application has the support of the historical commissions of Gill and Greenfield, Historic Deerfield, the Pocumtuck Valley Memorial Association and the Narragansett, Wampanoag and Nipmuck tribes, among other groups, Brule said.

Brule is a member of the Nolumbeka Project, which owns a 41-acre parcel of protected land on the Greenfield side of the Connecticut River. Brule said that parcel, the Wissatinnewag property, is a portion of the battlefield and the project holds historical documents related to the battle that would be used in the study.

The next meeting of the Montague Board of Selectmen is scheduled for Monday at 7 p.m. in the Town Hall, 1 Avenue A, Turners Falls.

You can reach Chris Curtis at: or 413-772-0261, ext. 257

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