Native Insight: Mapping origin of promontory continues to stump historians

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

Recorder Staff
Friday, October 06, 2017

Twenty years ago, this newspaper and eyes of Franklin County had their crosshairs on the promontory overlooking Great Falls in Turners Falls. Now, a federally funded King Philip’s War Battlefield Grant is focused all around it. Yet, in the process, not so much as a brief mention of Canada Hill or Mackin’s sand or gravel bank or Wissatinnewag. Why the silence? Too hot to handle? Agh, not really. The petty wounds seem to have healed. But, still, judging from recent scholarly discussion, you’d think the site never existed.

Today, owned and passionately protected as “off limits” by Nolumbeka — a nonprofit group dedicated to promoting a deeper, more accurate depiction of New England’s Native American population before and during European contact and colonization — the promontory has a deep history as a Native village dating back to the peopling of our Pioneer Valley. It’s sad that the oral traditions and creation narratives surrounding this hill, which abruptly ascends from the base of the ancient fishing falls and overlooks Factory Hollow and White Ash Swamp, have disappeared with the people who recited them in song and dance and verse around cozy winter fires.

The site was, in the deep-history oral narrative, one of the most fabled waterfalls in New England, if not the Northeast, unique in comparison to South Hadley Falls, Amoskeag Falls in Manchester, N.H., the Great Falls between Bellows Falls, Vt. and Walpole, N.H., and, yes, perhaps even the mightiest of them all: Majestic Niagara Falls of Great Lakes country far to the west.

“It’s really too bad people don’t recognize this site for the sacred indigenous landmark that it was,” said Howard Clark, co-founder of the Friends of Wissatinnewag, which sprouted 20 years ago and has in subsequent years morphed into Nolumbeka. “It was ‘the shining hill’ in Eastern Algonquian (Nipmuc) language, a place of great spirit that people from hundreds of miles away knew of, likely viewed as sacred and visited. The hill got its name from the rising mists that rose off the falls below and glistened in the morning sun. I get emotional about it, its beauty and allure; wish someone would try to capture it in a painting. Can you imagine the rainbows displayed through the morning sun?”

Which isn’t to say that all experts are in agreement about Wissatinnewag being located in Greenfield. No, not quite. In a scholarly 2006 History Journal of Massachusetts report titled “Locating Wissatinnewag in John Pynchon’s Letter of 1663,” co-authored by respected anthropologists Peter A. Thomas and Margaret Bruchac, Wissatinnewag is identified as a linguistic variation of “Housatonic.” That interpretation places the site in Mahican territory between the Hudson River and present-day Berkshire County.

The puzzle grew even more difficult to solve when, seven years later, in his 2013 book, “From Homeland to New Land: A History of the Mahican Indians, 1600-1830,” New York author William A. Starna revisited the topic and went to preeminent Eastern Algonquian language scholar Ives Goddard for 2009 clarification. Lo, Goddard opined in personal communication that “Wissatinnewag” is not a variation of Housatonic. Then, get this, a third writer chiming in with his own interpretation between Goddard and Starna published a report placing Wissatinnewag not in Massachusetts at all, but rather Connecticut. Oh well. Back to the drawing board.

This subject has become personal for me. Having friends on two sides of the location issue, conversation has become akin to dancing across the blade of razor cutlass in leather soles. Finally, Tuesday, after years of procrastination and before my daily morning romp with the dogs, I reached out by email to Goddard himself at his Smithsonian Institute office in Washington, D.C. Upon my return an hour or so later, I was pleased to find a prompt response that explained:

“In the 1663 letter, the bands are referred to three times. The first time as ‘the Indians of Agawam, Pajassuck, Nalwetog, Pacompuck, and the Wissatinnewag.’ Note ‘and the’ not simply ‘and.’ [Thus,] Wissatinnewag is not the name of a place (like the other four), it is an ethnic name in the local language. The ending -ag is the animate plural; it would mean ‘people of the (something) hill.’ (Although guessing about placename meanings is fraught with danger, I’m pretty sure this is not ‘shining.’) The second two references in the letter name some of the places in Massachusetts and refer to the other members of the confederacy as ‘further down’ and ‘farther south.’ I think this must mean the members of the confederacy who were in Connecticut.”

As you can see, even this fresh information from the accepted authority on the Eastern Algonquian language offers little when attempting to solve the Wissatinnewag riddle. To the contrary, it further complicates a complex conundrum. Because we’re dealing with words spelled out for the first, and many subsequent times, after by speakers of European languages, the mysteries only deepen. Fact is, we likely will never get a definitive answer. Thankfully, this shouldn’t discourage energetic historians from giving it a rah-rah college try. It’s fun, invigorating and quite discouraging, yet worthwhile.

So, in the meantime, I’ve printed Goddard’s email attachment — his 2014 paper on the Loups language of our Pioneer Valley’s First People — have forwarded it to Thomas and will surely delve into and discuss it further.

Stay tuned. This is fun stuff. And although I’ve run out of time this week, I shall return with more. Promise.

I just can’t get my fill of those fishing falls that, at the base of Canada Hill, separate Turners Falls and Gill. That sacred deep-history site started trending in a very, very bad way the day the massive outcropping of ledge protruding from midriver acquired its “civilized” name a Burnham’s Rock.

The rest is history and indigenous mystery.

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.