Native Insight: Following the tale of the tomahawk

  • 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 11, 2018

Historical discovery has a way of taking twists and turns that keep a narrative flowing.
That’s precisely the case with the 17th-century Native American tomahawk that was the subject of last week’s column. It is said to have been picked up somewhere in the upper Pioneer Valley during King Philip’s War by Lt. John King III, whose father, Capt. John II, was among the founding fathers of Northampton, established in 1654.

Young John was an 18-year-old militia soldier at the infamous May 19, 1676 “Falls Fight” in Turners Falls/Gill, which turned the tide of the devastating war in favor of colonials. His father, though a captain, was not present. It has thus been suggested that young John picked up the club in context with that infamous predawn ambush, slaughter and perilous retreat. Still, there is no hard evidence to support that claim. The fact is that it could have been picked up in a number of places. Such clubs were Native American “calling cards” — that is, symbolic taunts left behind among carnage by victorious warriors delivering their parting shot for enemies recovering their dead.

The prevailing wisdom has been that the club was left by a coastal or inland Eastern Algonquian in King Philip’s War after one of many skirmishes that wreaked havoc on the Pioneer Valley between Northampton and Turners Falls. Within that small slice of what is today Hampshire and Franklin counties unfolded such battles as the inaugural Swamp Fight (Aug. 25, 1675), Beers Fight (Sept. 4, 1675), Bloody Brook (Sept. 18, 1675) and Falls Fight during nine tumultuous months of flames and terror, with unimaginable atrocities and cruelties committed by both sides.

The club was passed down through King descendants, including Yale President Timothy Dwight, for some 300 years before being loaned by Esther Diefendorf to New York City’s famed Museum of the American Indian in the 1970s and getting sold out the back door to a private collector. Today, it’s owned by the Fenimore Art Museum in Cooperstown, N.Y., where it’s part of the museum’s Eugene and Clare Thaw Collection of American Indian Art. It is one of six known existing Eastern Woodland clubs of the period.

The fascinating new twist about this valuable relic came to light in “Tattoo Traditions of Native North America: Ancient and Contemporary Expressions of Identity.” Anthropologist and author Lars Krutak, a Native American iconographic expert, believes that, based on the symbols carved into the club, that it is of Iroquoian origin, probably Mohawk or Seneca. The conundrum that arises from such an assessment is that the five fingers of the 17th-century Iroquois Confederacy are not generally thought of as active King Philip’s War players. Yes, the Mohawk threat had always lurked from New England’s western periphery on the other side of the Hudson River. But still, Mohawks, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga and Seneca warriors are not generally associated with the war as regular combatants.

The war began with coastal Algonquians (Wampanoag and Narragansett) fighting Plymouth Colony settlers. It then quickly spilled over into the Massachusetts Bay Colony, pulling central Massachusetts Nipmucks and their Connecticut Valley and Berkshire hills cousins, such as our own Pocumtuck (Deerfield) and Sokokis (Northfield). Seldom are Iroquois mentioned in the war annals, except for King Philip’s desperate, often-mentioned, winter of 1675 to ’76 journey to the Hudson Valley to convince the Mohawks to join him as an ally against the English. The Mohawks not only declined but attacked the displaced Algonquian party, killing many and sending the survivors back to the upper Pioneer Valley for the spring Falls Fight massacre.

Last week, I wondered aloud if maybe an autonomous Iroquois warrior with Eastern Algonquian kin could have joined his wife or mother or grandmother’s people in their fight against the English, thus explaining the Iroquoian club on a valley King Philip’s War battlefield. Well, according to historian Peter A. Thomas, that’s entirely possible.

“There were at least two incursions of Mohawks into the Connecticut Valley against natives during King Philip's War,” he wrote in a Monday email. “The last one occurred on the same day as the 1676 Indian attack on Hadley. (These Iroquoian attacks) continued after the war as well, going eastward to attack resettled Praying Indian communities (and Abenakis in New Hampshire and Maine).”

But that wasn’t the enticing new twist. No, that had come a day or two earlier, when my friend Howard Clark — co-founder and lead researcher for the Nolumbeka Project, a Native American advocacy group — dropped an atomic bomb.

“I can’t recall where I heard it,” he said, “but the most interesting rumor I heard was that it was Saheda’s club and had been in the valley for many years before King Philip’s War.”

To refresh your memory, Saheda was the girt-bearing Mohawk chief whose early-June 1664 murder somewhere in the vicinity of the Pocumtuck Fort (nestled on a hill a half-mile east of today’s Old Deerfield village) set off the February 1665 Mohawk attack that killed a powerful war chief and his family, displaced the once-powerful Pocumtucks, and cleared the way for the Deerfield settlement by folks from the nascent 17th-century towns below. Saheda was headed for the Pocumtuck Fort on a mission of peace and was, according to Clark and many other historians, intercepted and murdered by retributive Sokoki warriors from the 35 or 36 refugee families living among the Pocumtucks after their Hinsdale, N.H., fort was attacked in December 1663. The attackers were Mohawks, Oneida and perhaps other Iroquois warriors who had a long history of warfare with Abenakis of the Champlain and Connecticut valleys, New Hampshire and Maine.

It’s possible, maybe even probable, that Saheda was carrying a handsome, artistic, ceremonial club for the trip to the Pocumtuck conference. And, yes, if so, one of the Abenaki murderers could have gathered up the royal prize after their dastardly deed. Thus, it could have resurfaced 12 years later on a battle scene, perhaps left by a Sokoki warrior and later picked up by King, his father or just about any local. Then again, it could have been left by an Iroquois warrior on one of the engagements Thomas cited, or perhaps during another we are unaware of.

Too bad the King family’s written history that accompanied the club to the Museum of the American Indian went missing following a shady 1970s, back-door transaction said to have commanded a cool $400,000. That document will never be found. Documentation for objects acquired in questionable deals tends to vanish.

In closing, there’s this fascinating yet unintelligible little tease contained in what is referred to in New York colonial documents. Dated July 12, 1664, less than a month after Saheda’s murder, the second-hand report makes an intriguing reference that could be related to Saheda’s club. New York Native Americans, iincluding one named Cajadogo, meet four “Northern savages” traveling west along the Mohawk Trail as they reach the western bank of a river in a canoe. The New York Native Americans know of Saheda’s murder and enquire, “How will it be now with the Northern savages, for the Onejages have a knife and a hatchet lying upon their arms.” The Northern savages respond that they had only followed through on orders from the English.

Could they possibly have been referring to our ceremonial war club that could, back in the day, have been called a hatchet?

That’s anyone’s guess. So, let’s throw the riddle out there. Maybe someone has additional insight. After all, that King Philip’s War relic did live in this valley for centuries and did have a rich tale attached.