Native Insight: A meeting of historical minds

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

Sunday, November 12, 2017

It’s Saturday morning and three men — a retired archaeologist, a documentary filmmaker and a scribe — one in his 70s, another in his 60s, the other in his 50s, all interested in Connecticut Valley history, are gathered at my kitchen table. We’re on a mission.

The filmmaker, John Kelley, 54, is by occupation an operating-room nurse at Springfield’s Mercy Hospital. In his spare time, he studies the earliest days of New England colonial history known as the Contact Period, when two foreign cultures collided head-on and, according to Kelley, “may as well have been from different planets.”

A Munson resident and longtime member of the Massachusetts Archaeological Society, Kelley has spent many years researching Springfield’s earliest days under William, then son John Pynchon, plus the contemporaneous settlement of adjacent Connecticut Colony towns Windsor, Wethersfield and Hartford, founded by pioneers of the Massachusetts Bay and Plymouth colonies. This fascination eventually led him to King Philip’s War (KPW, 1675-76) and important events in Springfield, Brookfield and Lancaster. So, wasn’t it inevitable that he’d eventually place his crosshairs on the upper Pioneer Valley, which felt the full fury of KPW between August 1675 and the spring of 1676? Anyone trying to understand this bloody war would have to at some point focus on the decisive, wee-hour, May 19, 1676 attack on a sleeping Indian fishing encampment at Riverside/Gill known as the “Falls Fight.” This sneak attack is widely accepted as the event that turned the tide of the war in favor of the victorious colonials.

Embarking on his journey back to 17th century upper Pioneer Valley, Kelley started by Googling different combinations of keywords focused on the Falls Fight and was relieved to learn of the ongoing federal Battlefield Grant project that’s been researching the battle for more than two years. Funded by the National Park Service’s Battlefield Protection Program under the leadership of UConn/Mashantucket Pequot Museum archaeologist Kevin McBride, the Turners Falls project has made great strides in recent months piecing together the retreat of colonial militia under counterattack by Indians. It was during this retreat that Capt. William Turner was killed by Indian bullets while crossing the Green River toward Deerfield and Hatfield, just downstream from the Green River Swimming and Recreation Area on Nashs Mill Road in Greenfield. Nearly two centuries later, the Montague industrial village located on the eastern bank of the majestic Connecticut River falls was named Turners Falls in honor of the fallen captain. Ancestors of some 300 Native men, women and children slaughtered at the site have long objected to dignifying a man they view as a war-atrocity butcher unworthy of praise.

“Honestly, I knew little about the upper Pioneer Valley campaign and was prepared to start from scratch,” said Kelley. “So, it would be an understatement to say I was thrilled to find that there was an open, current, intensive research program focused on the subject.”

Trying to get up to speed, Kelley printed and read online reports generated by McBride and company, met ubiquitous Turners Falls local historian Ed Gregory for a guided Powertown tour and, during a Saturday breakfast stop at the Wagon Wheel Restaurant in Gill, bumped into one of my columns relating to the Falls Fight retreat. He proceeded to find other related columns and reached out by email to say he was planning to attend last week’s Battlefield Grant meeting and wanted to meet me. Though the meeting was not a convenient time for me during bird-hunting season, I set up our Saturday visit at my home and invited Dr. Peter A. Thomas to join us. Thomas is probably the preeminent Connecticut Valley Contact-Period scholar, author of “In the Maelstrom of Change: The Indian River Trade and Cultural Process in the Middle Connecticut Valley 1635-65.” This unpublished, 1990 UMass doctoral dissertation is regarded as a bible for the period and is still widely cited in scholarly works about the 17th century.

For a couple of years now, Pete and I have been sharing local-history information, much of it related to the Contact Period and King Philip’s War. The interaction has borne fruit. We have studied old maps and narratives, visited several sites and explored old, discontinued roads with a deep-history genesis as indigenous trails, which may have started as game trails that pulled the first human beings through our valley and its hills some 13,000 or more years ago. Perhaps even more enticing is the study of indigenous oral history and spirituality, understanding of which can lead a researcher closer to the hidden truth obscured by the written history of conquerors.

All of this we shared with John Kelley on Saturday during an engagement that went on for some five hours, much of it on the road, visiting appropriate sites along the Green River and beyond, even venturing to western ridges for lofty views of landscape on which the Falls Fight, its approach and retreat unfolded.

“My God,” said Kelley, standing in my driveway playing some of the film he had already launched into cyberspace, “looks like I’m going to have to kill this stuff and start over.”

That’s OK. History is seldom a stationary target that can be nailed with one well-placed shot. It’s a darting, bounding, zigging and zagging object that can at times elude armies of sophisticated historians. Isn’t that what draws people to the game?

So, our five-hour foray was just the beginning. Kelley will likely return to the fray, and so will we, probably till the day we are no longer. At that point, someone else will seize the baton at full speed to continue the relay race to the finish line.

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.