Native Insight: Escape path of Falls Fight soldier remains a mystery

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

For The Recorder
Published: 9/15/2017 11:41:07 AM

I can’t seem to shake Jonathan Wells (1659-1739), so-called boy hero of the May 19, 1676 Falls Fight, “Battle of Peskeompscut/Great Falls” or whatever one chooses to call it. Like a stubborn broken thorn-head buried deep between dark, hairy paw pads, it just cannot be extracted, no matter how powerful the magnifying glass, how intense the light, how efficient the tweezers.

What has for 341 years remained a local mystery is this wounded, disoriented 16-year-old boy’s route of escape following a frantic four-mile retreat under strategic Indian counterattack from Riverside to the Green River fording place at what is today called Nashs Mill Road bridge. It was there, near where Mill Brook flows into the Green River just below the Greenfield Pool, that Wells’ circuitous path becomes almost impossible to trace. Truth be told, it seems Wells himself was incapable of recreating the exact escape route he took through unknown woods and swamp to the outflow of Fall Town Gore at the Greenfield Pumping Station. From there, the distant landscape curled him back south and east through the Greenfield Meadows to the Wisdom/Petty Plain overflow and down the hill to a Deerfield River crossing near the mouth of Sheldon Brook in the northeast corner of Deerfield’s North Meadows. Then, comparatively speaking, it was clear sailing the remaining 12 or 13 miles to his nascent Hatfield village home.

All in all, Wells’ route from the Falls Fight to the North Meadows would have taken him about 12 miles, the first four or so miles of which would have been chaotic indeed. “We never anticipated how intense the fighting from the falls to the other side of Fall River (about three-quarters of a mile) was,” said lead researcher Kevin McBride, who’s in charge of the expert battlefield-reconstruction team combing the landscape with metal detectors for musket balls and other battlefield signatures. “There was a lot of shooting going on, most of it from the Indians counter-attacking the men who had ambushed their village.”

McBride anticipates more of the same at least to the junction of Routes 2 and 2A along the northwestern base of Canada Hill, where much modern disturbance makes it unlikely that much evidence remains. The same can be said of the Green River ford at Nashs Mills, where a good chunk of the old terrace-point dropping steeply down to the river was removed during regretful Route 91 construction. Occurring in the early Sixties, that Interstate 91 excavation obliterated a placid Greenfield neighborhood called North Parish, along with its First Congregational Church and picturesque Nashs Mill Pond of romantic Greenfield lore.

According to Nash family tradition, fleeing Capt. William Turner met his maker in the river below, where he was caught in the crossfire of a clever Indian ambush that rained down musket balls from both sides of the Mill Brook ravine. Wells, weak, wounded, terrified and likely in delirious survival mode, split off north on his forever-since hypothesized escape path.

Before we write off as bumbling fools the likes of Turner and Wells and most of the troop of approximately 150 soldiers who departed Hatfield at dusk on the evening of May 18, 1676 to march some 25 miles in the dark of night, determined to wreak bloody havoc on a sleeping Indian fishing village at Riverside, Gill, let us consider a few redeeming facts.

First, the regulars led by Turner were outsiders from coastal Bay Colony towns and were totally dependent on valley guides Benjamin Wait and Experience Hinsdale to reach the sleeping falls fishing village. Those two Hatfield scouts were probably the only two men in the party who knew the trails and the landscape well. Once the Indians sleeping in four adjacent villages were awakened by the crack-of-dawn shooting, they responded and, knowing the landscape much better than the soldiers, were able to cut them off at several strategic spots. These well-placed ambushes took a heavy toll, killing Hinsdale early on in White Ash Swamp and leaving the disoriented survivors running for their lives through unfamiliar territory. There were approximately 37 soldiers killed and 29 wounded in rapid fashion. Those who made it back to Hatfield unscathed were either, by dumb, frantic luck, following the right man ... or very, very lucky.

Afterwards, survivors admitted the troops had lingered too long at the falls, giving the Indians time to organize a counter-attack and hem them in on their perilous retreat. It’s a miracle that the 16-year-old Wells, who had never previously been more than two miles north of Hatfield village, survived. He tried to follow Capt. Turner and Lt. Samuel Holyoke away from danger on the path they had taken into the fight along the north side of White Ash Swamp, but the Indians had set up in the thick brush along the swamp’s northern lip, picking off soldiers in a shooting gallery. Somehow, Turner, Holyoke, Wells and others made it to the headwaters of Cherry Rum Brook, followed it to its Mill Brook confluence, and took Mill Brook to the Green River where Turner took three musket balls, at least one of which was fatal.

From that point, Lt. Holyoke somehow broke through with what was left of his tattered, frantic party and led his men south down the Green River. Wells was not among them. He was off on his own often-repeated, likely occasionally embellished adventure of upper Pioneer Valley lore.

Now, before I sign off, some intriguing questions for future exploration. 1.) Did Wells follow the Green River along its east bank, or did he stay atop the high escarpment looking down from Murphy Park to Leyden Woods before dropping down into Country Farms? 2.) If he reached the outflow of the Fall Town Gore at the Pumping Station, why does he not mention crossing the well-known Indian trail near the Eunice Williams monument? Could he have missed it? 3.) What of Wells’ tale of dreaming that his father comes to him and tells him he’s lost and must follow the river to where the mountain comes down to it? Was this a dream, delirium or fanciful fiction shaped in adulthood? 4.) How is it possible that Wells — a leading Deerfield citizen, town official, military captain, commanding officer on fateful Feb. 29, 1704, and Deerfield’s first justice of the peace — is unable to retrace his famous escape path? 5.) What did the Greenfield Meadows look like in 1676? Described in the earliest Green River records as meadows and commons, it appears to have been fire-maintained, open Indian cropland, probably with trees growing along streams and in depression marshes.

I’m sure additional questions will appear like attic ghosts as we ponder these questions. Stay tuned. My nose is high into a gentle cross breeze, tail furiously a waggin’. The baying begins when the chase is fruitful.

Recorder sports editor Gary Sanderson is a senior-active member of the outdoor-writers associations of America and New England. Blog: Email:

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