Native Insight: War club finds its way from Pioneer Valley to New York museum

  • This 17th-century Native American war club was picked up off an upper Pioneer Valley battle site by militiaman Northampton Lt. John King. The club now resides at the Fenimore Art Museum in Cooperstown, N.Y. Submitted photo/Persimmon Press

  • This stylized face is found carved into the end of a rare 17th-century Native American war club picked up off a King Philip’s War battlefield. Submitted photo/Persimmon Press


Recorder Staff
Sunday, March 04, 2018

An important Indian artifact with provenance to one of the original Northampton families is back in published view thanks to “Tattoo Traditions of Native North America: Ancient and Contemporary Expressions of Identity,” by Lars Krutak.

The Washington, D.C. anthropologist, with a special focus on worldwide tribal tattooing, features the club in his book’s final “Eastern Woodlands” chapter. Predictably, the least is known about the Northeastern tribes that were driven elsewhere well before the American Revolution, thus more difficult to study after assimilation to faraway tribal villages.

So, I now own two books containing narrative about this rare war club retrieved on some King Philip’s War (1675-76) battlefield or attack site by Lt. John King, a Northampton resident and militiaman. Born in Northampton on July 5, 1657, King would have been 18 at the time of the war’s Connecticut Valley outbreak (Swamp Fight, Aug. 25, 1675), and was a soldier at the decisive May 19, 1676 “Falls Fight” of Turners Falls. Somewhere in his valley rambles during the King Philip’s War era, King picked up this iconic ceremonial war club believed to have been intentionally left behind as a taunting calling card by a victorious warrior.

The source that had previously introduced me to the club is “Two Essays: Chief & Greed” (Persimmon Press 2005), famed Harvard anthropologist Edmund Carpenter’s sad tale of the aggressive collection and (shhhhhhhh!) deaccessioning of the world’s finest collection of Native American artifacts once held at New York City’s Museum of the American Indian — the brainchild of rich, unscrupulous, Edwardian collector George Gustav Heye (1874-1957). Much, but sadly not all, of that priceless Heye Foundation collection is now housed at the Smithsonian’s three-tiered National Museum of the American Indian located in Washington, D.C., New York City and Maryland.

The handsome wooden club with the patina of maple is adorned with symbolic etchings and carvings. It was picked up by King, probably in 1676, and remained a family treasure for some 300 years before the last descendant to own it loaned it to New York’s Museum of the American Indian (MIA) in the 1970s. The museum returned the favor by selling it to a private collector out the back door for the alleged price of $400,000. That’s probably less than half its value today as it sits safe and sound on public display at the Fenimore Art Museum in Cooperstown, N.Y.

Unfortunately (yet predictably, given its shady path since leaving King heirs), the whereabouts of the written family history that accompanied the club to the MIA is now and likely forever unknown. Its provenance from Lt. King to the MIA went to son Medad and grandson Medad II, to son Thaddeus, to daughter Experience — spouse of Rev. Dr. Timothy Dwight, president of Yale University and author of the popular 1823 journal “Travels in New England and New York.” The last family heir to have the club in her possession was Esther Diefendorf, daughter of Florence Irene Bates Johnson, an Experience (King) Dwight descendant who loaned it to MIA.

It will never be known exactly where Lt. John King picked up the rare relic. He could have recovered it exploring curiosities off the Pocumtuck Trail from Northampton to Hatfield to Deerfield and beyond. Or maybe he found it at the site of the Swamp Fight below Mount Sugarloaf or on Beers Plain in Northfield or Bloody Brook or Old Deerfield or along the Falls Fight retreat path currently under professional scrutiny. Then again, it could have come from an isolated attack on an isolated home or some unfortunate teamster ambushed along a trail. Pinning down the site is impossible at this point, which doesn’t detract from the club’s value. It is without question a rare, authentic 17th-century war club, probably Mohawk or Seneca, according to new research by Krutak, who arrives at that opinion from evaluation of the symbolism carved into it. However, Krutak’s assessment doesn’t jive with the prevailing wisdom, which suggests it was left by an Eastern Algonquian King Philip’s War participant — perhaps coastal (Narragansett, Wanpanoag, Abenaki), maybe inland (Nipmuck, Pocumtuck, Sokoki or Mahican).

Krutak opines that it has the appearance of an Iroquois club and was probably left behind at a skirmish between Mohawk or Seneca and coastal Algonquian warriors. But did any Iroquois enter our valley to fight against King Philip’s War warriors? Hmmm? Could be, but that’s the first I’ve heard of it. Nevertheless, anything’s possible. Or maybe even an autonomous, wildcat Iroquois party harboring personal resentment against someone here in the valley jumped into the fray for a hit-and-run engagement. Or perhaps even a few Mohawks with family ties here in the valley and no allegiance to the English joined in with their Algonquian kin? It’s anyone’s guess. Krutak, an expert on tribal symbolism and art, believes the club wears Iroquoian symbolism, and it is known that Iroquois warriors often left such calling cards behind with scalped, mutilated corpses.

The late Carpenter (“Chief & Greed”), also an expert, didn’t rule out an Iroquoian origin. He identifies the club as Eastern Woodland (1630-80), a broad classification that includes Algonquian and Iroquoian. Three of the symbols on the club — the open-mouthed, underwater-panther handle, a turtle and thunderbird — fit into the Iroquois and Algonquian spiritual realms. The same can probably be said of the 15 inscribed circles Krutak identifies as the club owner’s personal scalp tally. And remember, Mohawks and Eastern Algonquians were no strangers. They lived in overlapping territories that had been disputed before a whiff of colonial intrusion wafted into our Pioneer Valley.

So, if ever in Cooperstown, N.Y. — home of the Baseball Hall of Fame — visit the Fenimore museum and view the war club that slipped away from our valley in the dark of night. Then again, consider this: If Krutak’s Iroquoian hypothesis is correct, after more than 300 years, that club finally found its way back home.