Native Insight: We all benefit when historians tackle stories seldom told

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


Recorder Staff
Sunday, January 07, 2018

First, a correction: Mount Holyoke College historian Christine M. DeLucia is not of Wabanaki, Native American roots as stated in last week’s column reviewing a pair of fresh King Philip’s War (KPW) books, including hers, a place-based study titled “Memory Lands: King Philip’s War and the Place of Violence in the Northeast.”

A New Hampshire native, DeLucia grew up in Manchester near the Merrimack River’s majestic Amoskeag Falls, once a seasonal, spring fishing village of the proud Pennacooks, with whom she shares no DNA. That’s irrelevant. What matters is this scholar’s impressive academic pedigree, which took her from Manchester public schools to Harvard, the University of St Andrews (Scotland) and Yale, where she earned her Ph.D. Now, a Mount Holyoke assistant professor of history, her undergrads are fortunate indeed to have her.

Being myself from an important KPW memory-scape, I can get my head around DeLucia’s assertion that place matters in how KPW’s story is told and remembered by both sides. I learned to fish and skate on Bloody Brook, followed the “Indian trails” to shelf caves on both Sugarloafs, studied the indigenous importance of other sites of 17th century lore like Hopewell Swamp on Mount Sugarloaf’s southern skirt, Mount Toby, Peskeomscut Falls and Rock Dam in Turners Falls, Hadley’s Honey Pot, Northampton’s Meadows, and researched many old trails turned into the earliest roads through our western Hampshire/Franklin hills. The problem is that for the most part, students of American history have been introduced to only one narrative: that of the conquerors or colonizers. DeLucia wants to share with her readers the story that has not been told, or at least the one that is seldom told, and thus is known only by dedicated historians and truth-seekers not satisfied with “conventional wisdom” that’s often slanted, rhetorical bunk. DeLucia’s book helps clear the familiar one-sided narrative we all know by heart.

But enough of that. Before I go, let’s examine a couple of vexing issues still circulating around in my head after power-reading DeLucia’s book and that of Amherst College assistant professor Lisa Brooks: “Our Beloved Kin: A New History of King Philip’s War.” The first subject I’ll cover is that of the grain the soldiers were retrieving from Deerfield when ambushed by Indians in the one-sided fight that unfolded at Bloody Brook on Sept. 19, 1675. Was that grain corn or wheat? Then, just a little discussion of KPW chronicler Mary Rowlandson, the haughty Lancaster minister’s wife, whose published Eurocentric observations of her Indian captors during winter-spring captivity in central and western Massachusetts have been a mainstay of KPW interpretation.

Let’s start with the corn-or-wheat dilemma. DeLucia says it was wheat, Brooks corn. Wouldn’t you think Yale University Press editors would have caught the discrepancy and settled on one or the other? Well, maybe not, according to Peter A. Thomas, a preeminent Connecticut Valley Historical Contact Period scholar.

“You have to remember that someone like you would pick up on that because we’ve been discussing it for a year or two,” he said. “They’re writing a book and taking a much wider view of the war, not just focusing on the upper valley from Hatfield to Northfield. I can see how they’d miss it.”

Pete’s right. We have been discussing the corn/wheat question for months, maybe even years. In defense of the Yale editors and two scholarly authors, there is no general agreement on the topic among published historians dating from the 17th to 21st centuries, beginning with Mather and Hubbard and continuing to this day with DeLucia and Brooks. The problem is that maize was an unknown New World crop that came to be known as corn, an Old-World name that covered many hard-shelled grains, among them wheat, oats and barley. So, there you have it: Europeans named the New World horticultural plant with golden ears of grain “corn,” in keeping with Old World tradition. Thus, it may be a little nit-picky to raise this issue were it not for some avocational local historians vociferously proclaiming that it was corn, not wheat that the colonials were transporting from Deerfield to Hatfield that fateful day of the Bloody Brook Battle, the Pioneer Valley’s Custer’s Last Stand some 200 years earlier.

For the record, Thomas is convinced the troopers were salvaging wheat, which puts him in agreement with Deerfield’s George Sheldon and some other historians. On the other hand, the grain being transported is as often referred to as corn as well. It appears to be a simple semantics game, a misunderstanding confused by an important New World crop never before seen by Old World settlers.

As for Mary Rowlandson, well, there is much to glean from her writings about captivity among Indians moving between central Massachusetts and the Hudson Valley, including a good amount of time spent in temporary winter villages around Athol, Turners Falls and Northfield leading up to the decisive “Falls Fight” of local lore. A helpful source relating to chronology and a fleeing people’s movements and interactions with other indigenous people, her socio-cultural observations and laced with racist bias that clouds her views. The conservative, prim and proper wife of a minister, she had totally bought into Puritan ways and could not accept the gender roles, ritual or spiritual beliefs of her captors. She viewed her Indian masters as pagan agents of Satan and simply was unable to entertain even a faint whiff of acceptance.

Juxtapose Rowlandson’s views with those of Puritan children who ultimately refused to come home from captivity. We’re talking about such famous characters as Deerfield minister John Williams’ “unredeemed-captive” daughter Eunice and countless others from Deerfield and elsewhere on the New England frontier. With them, you’ll find a stark difference from Ms. Rowlandson. Given a choice, some captives remained with their Indian masters and assimilated into a new culture.

The same can be said of Metis trappers and many examples of 18th and 19th century men and women who became members of Plains Indian tribes. A prime example is author James Willard Schultz, who lived with the Blackfoot Tribe, married a Blackfoot woman, and in his many writings praised the culture of the people he chose to live with.

Frankly, Mary Rowlandson was an intolerant snob, not uncommon among our Puritan ancestors. Need we bring up the Salem Witch Trials? Remember, that hysteria, too, was related to post-KPW fear of Indians. Look it up, it’s a fact.

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.