Turners Falls board OKs battlefield grant application

TURNERS FALLS — Proponents of a study envisioned as a first step in gathering a balanced history of the bloody incident that gave the village its name have the backing they had sought for a grant application, with two days to spare.

Once known as the Falls Fight and since known by other names including the Turners Falls or Great Falls massacre, the 1676 incident is considered a turning point in King Philip’s War. Proponents include representatives of the Narragansett Indian Tribe of Rhode Island and the Nolumbeka Project of Greenfield, a Native American advocacy group.

The question of Montague’s support for the grant application did not come to a vote last week after Chairman Mark Fairbrother removed it from the meeting agenda, but was on the agenda this week at the request of the others.

On Monday night the Montague Board of Selectmen voted 2-1 to support the grant application, with the stipulation that the incident be referred to in the application as the Battle of Great Falls rather than the Battle of Turners Falls.

Fairbrother’s first point of objection to the grant was the name, which he said he had never heard before the grant came up and which suggested hand-to-hand fighting on the current main street.

Fairbrother also objected to what he said was an inflated view of Montague’s importance, and the idea that a significant area of the battlefield is undeveloped. Most of the killing took place on the Gill bank, and Fairbrother argued 95 percent of the land in question has been developed or plowed at one time or another since. Fairbrother suggested the grant application be taken to Gill instead.

“We’re basically being guilt-tripped and held responsible for something that didn’t happen here, period,” Fairbrother said.

The war predates the town, but Montague’s largest village was eventually named in honor of British commander Capt. William Turner, who led a colonial attack on an encampment of native tribes at the falls. The bulk of the fight, the slaughter of somewhere in the range of 200 to 360 native men, women and children, occurred across the river, in present-day Gill.

David Brule of Erving, a member of the Nolumbeka Project and the local application coordinator, said the question of who led the application came down to what they wanted to see come out of it, and the effort had letters of support from the other involved towns and the Narragansett, Wampanoag and Nipmuck tribes, among other groups.

“All of those people who wrote those letters had no problem with this town taking the forefront, somebody had to do it,” Brule said.

Nolumbeka member Joseph Graveline of Northfield said Turner’s attack was aimed at the Great Falls, a gathering area where the tribes would have planted and fished to resupply warriors for the summer’s fighting.

“It is a non-conversation as to whether it is the Turners Falls side or the Gill side, it is the Great Falls,” Graveline said, adding that some fighting took place on both sides, while much of the battlefield is underwater.

Town Administrator Frank Abbondanzio said the hope is the grant will lead to an eventual Native American cultural park, and an economic boost for the town.

This is the second time the proponents have sought the grant from the National Park Service’s American Battlefield Protection Program. The 2012 application failed.

This year’s application seeks funding for an estimated $60,000-worth of work, with a $3,000 match from the town in the form of 80 hours of grant administration work by the town planner.

Fairbrother said he objects to the town spending tax money on the effort, which he said was spun to inflate Montague’s role in the episode and benefits tribal leaders he said continue to cost the town money through their opposition to an expansion project at the Turners Falls Municipal Airport. “I’m not interested in essentially rewarding somebody for that action,” he said.

Colleagues Michael Nelson and Christopher Boutwell voted for the application. Nelson said he shared some of Fairbrother’s concerns but felt the town’s contribution was relatively small and it was time to move on from the airport controversy.

“There’s only so many times you can kick yourself before you have to get up and say, ‘OK, let’s move on with this,’” Nelson said.

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