Great Falls? Turners Falls village name under fire 

  • 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

  • The name of Turners Falls, pictured from Route 2, 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. STAFF FILE PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

Staff Writer
Published: 6/30/2020 4:46:03 PM

TURNERS FALLS — An organized effort to change the name of Montague’s largest village has quickly gained support over the last two weeks, and is likely on track for a Town Meeting vote.

An online petition asking to change the name of Turners Falls to Great Falls began circulating about two weeks ago. As of Tuesday afternoon, it had 1,796 digital signatures. (It can be found at bit.ly/3ifM4iO.)

The online petition points out that Turners Falls is named to memorialize a 1676 conflict between a Colonial Massachusetts militia and a Nipmuc group camped by the falls between present-day Gill and Turners Falls.

The conflict has been variously described as both a battle and a massacre. The militia — 150 soldiers led by Capt. William Turner — killed an estimated 100 to 200 Nipmuc people, mostly women, children and elderly. Historians also understand that there were about 60 to 70 Nipmuc warriors camping nearby, but that Turner knowingly attacked a peaceful camp instead. The attack may have been retaliation for a recent raid on a Colonial settlement.

A counter-petition has also appeared on change.org, with 638 signatures as of Tuesday afternoon. The description of the counter-petition says that it is meant to give a basis for comparing how much support there is on each side of the question. (The counter-petition can be viewed at bit.ly/2YOOgWV.)

Town officials are aware of the effort to change the village’s name and expect it to be formally addressed. Town Clerk Deb Bourbeau advised the petition’s organizers Monday how to formally submit such a petition for town government action.

The Selectboard expects to discuss the question very soon, said Town Administrator Steve Ellis, although a date has not yet been set.

The currently circulating online petition was started by Knox Huppert, although they acknowledged that the idea of dememorializing William Turner has been talked about for many years in Montague. (Huppert uses “they/them” pronouns.)

Huppert said they had not necessarily expected the effort to gain as much traction as it seems to have, and had been unsure of the legal process for submitting a petition for governmental action.

“I didn’t think there would be a lot of support for it, to be honest. I didn’t envision it getting as big as it has,” they said. “I thought it would be shot down really quickly. I didn’t think we would get enough resident support.”

An online petition is not legally valid, Bourbeau explained. But there is a legal means for residents to take the kind of action that seems to be the intent of this online petition.

Such an article can be submitted for inclusion in a Town Meeting warrant. For Annual Town Meeting, the article must be supported by a petition with at least 10 signatures of registered Montague voters. For a Special Town Meeting, the petition must have at least 100 signatures.

Bourbeau explained the legal regulations guarantee that all signers understand exactly what text they are endorsing, and also that any resulting Town Meeting action will be consistent with state law.

Huppert said Bourbeau advised them of the rules Monday, and that several volunteers are now working to collect 100 signatures.

Yet, there are many uncertainties regarding the legal process. Some kinds of actions can only be made through Annual Town Meeting each spring, and not through a Special Town Meeting.

Bourbeau said she is unsure whether changing the village’s name might have to be done during an Annual Town Meeting as opposed to a Special Town Meeting. Ellis said he has not yet gotten a legal opinion on the question.

It is also unclear where the issue would go after Town Meeting, assuming it received an affirmative vote. Bourbeau guessed changing the village’s name would involve pursuing legislation at the state level, and would likely have to be approved again as a ballot question during a town election. However, Bourbeau noted she has not thoroughly researched the issue.

“It’s not often that people change the name of their village,” she said.

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


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