Montague seeks history behind Turners Falls name

  • The name of Turners Falls, pictured from above, memorializes a 1676 conflict between a Colonial Massachusetts militia led by Capt. William Turner and a Nipmuc group camped by the falls between present-day Gill and Turners Falls. FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 8/25/2020 6:56:44 PM

MONTAGUE — As the historical namesake of Turners Falls has again become a point of controversy, the Montague Historical Commission hopes to provide an education on what really happened and who was involved in the incident that the name memorializes.

It started in June, when an online campaign on change.org to change the name of Turners Falls to Great Falls drew notable support. In two weeks, 1,800 people signed the digital petition.

This was not the first time the name of Turners Falls has come under fire. The name has long been criticized on charges that it memorializes an episode in history that should not be celebrated. Now, the question of changing the name seems to be headed for a Town Meeting vote, possibly as soon as this fall.

The Selectboard and Historical Commission both have expressed concern that the debate over the name could be divisive and damaging to the town. Historical Commission Chair David Brule compared the differences in opinion to the controversy a few years ago over Turners Falls High School’s mascot, which had been a caricature of a Native American.

Hoping to avoid another conflict, the Historical Commission is starting a new study on where the name came from, and what really happened in the Battle of Turner’s Falls.

“Certainly time has changed opinions,” said Selectboard Chair Rich Kuklewicz. “Especially as more facts come out about what happened.”

Historical impact

Historically, the name comes from a 1676 conflict between a colonial Massachusetts militia — led by Capt. William Turner — and a native Nipmuc group that was camping by the falls between present-day Gill and Turners Falls.

Turner, leading 150 colonial soldiers, attacked and killed 100 to 200 Nipmuc people, many of them women, children and elderly. Historians also understand that about 60 or 70 Nipmuc soldiers were camped nearby, but Turner deliberately chose to attack the peaceful group instead.

The incident may have been a turning point in King Philip’s War, which ended in victory for the New England colonies. But in more modern views of history, the war has also been seen as an instance of colonialist aggression against indigenous people.

Already the question of the village’s name may have become a controversy. Soon after the original online campaign appeared, a counter-campaign arose to keep the name. It has drawn less support, but still a considerable amount. As of Tuesday, the campaign to change the name had nearly 2,700 signatures (bit.ly/3ifM4iO), and the campaign to keep the name had a little over 1,600 (bit.ly/2YOOgWV).

Though opinions are strong, the public generally does not have a strong understanding of the history, according to Brule, who also chairs the Nolumbeka Project, a nonprofit dedicated to the preservation of the history of Native Americans of New England through educational programs, art, history, music, heritage seed preservation and cultural events.

“So much of the population of Turners Falls and Montague just don’t know the history,” he said. “I grew up in town and knew nothing of this.”

Among historians, however, information on Turner and the incident at the falls is pretty well established, Brule said. Scholarship ranges from views that demonize Turner to views that are more sympathetic, he said.

Turner himself is a more interesting character than many may realize. Before the war, Brule said, Turner had been imprisoned by the Massachusetts Bay Colony because of his religious beliefs. When the war came, Turner, who had prior military training, was released so he could serve as a military commander. He later wrote to Boston, saying he was too old and too tired to keep fighting, and asking to be relieved of duty. His request was denied.

“There’s a whole human side,” Brule said. “I don’t want to make him too sympathetic. But on the other hand, he wasn’t a demon. If you want to be intellectually fair, you have to look at all sides.”

The research will probably take several months, Brule said — meaning, it may not line up with the effort to vote on the name change question at a fall Town Meeting.

Future of a name change

A Town Meeting vote became a realistic possibility soon after the success of the original online campaign (to change the name). Since then, organizers have been preparing a legally valid petition to ask Town Meeting voters to formally endorse the change.

If the petition goes through as discussed, Town Meeting voters would decide whether to request special state legislation that would establish the village of Great Falls in the area that has been known as Turners Falls.

As of late July, organizers said they were on track to put the question on a Town Meeting warrant this fall. (A date for a fall Town Meeting has not been set, but Montague does normally have a fall Town Meeting.)

The Selectboard and Historical Commission, however, are concerned about rushing the conversation. Not only is it a touchy issue, but it also happens to have come at a time when the town is working on another difficult social issue.

This summer, Montague started a large-scale review of the Police Department’s policies and practices, motivated by recent national concern over the use of force, especially in encounters with people of racial minorities.

Members of the Selectboard and Historical Commission have said that, with both issues calling for serious discussion, they would rather the town focus on only one at a time. Brule suggested that the spring or summer of 2021 is a more realistic timeframe for a public conversation and vote on a name change.

“It’s better to focus on it and do it right the first time, and really have that discussion in a positive way, as opposed to rushing it through,” said Selectboard member Mike Nelson. “If the petitioners are on board with it.”

It is not known if the organizers of the original petition are willing to wait. Knox Huppert, who started the online campaign to change the name and has been involved with the Town Meeting petition, could not be reached for comment before press time.

Even if the question is on the fall Town Meeting warrant, voters can still choose to “table” it for a later meeting, which could be a way to allow the timeline that the Historical Commission expects.

“Hopefully folks on both sides would be willing to participate in a discussion that helps alleviate some of the divisiveness,” Kuklewicz said. “Taking time makes sense.”

Reach Max Marcus at mmarcus@recorder.com or 413-930-4231.




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