Bull Head Pond Conclusions

I’ve been tempted lately to jump back into the anadromous fish fray, for which local gadfly Karl Meyer has so capably taken the baton and sprinted off toward a distant, cluttered finish line. But first things first — specifically closure on the location of Greenfield’s Bull Head Pond, which I know much more about since last addressing it here a month or so back.

Since then, it’s been a phone call here, email there, questions, reading, personal observation and visits, conversations, interpretations, pensive pondering, evaluation and re-evaluation, all of it critical to discovery and a conclusion, which I have.

“How’d you get onto this subject, anyway,” wry-grinned key source Peter Conway during his Tuesday-night Recorder visit, Dave Allen’s multi-bookmarked “Historic Greenfield Maps” booklet in hand. The third in a four-generation string of family ownership on the hidden “downtown” site where the original Bull Head Pond rests, Conway was the strongest thread stitching it all together for me. In fact, I think he became my equal for enthusiasm.

Oh yes, there were others, many others who played important roles, but Conway had personal reasons for exploration, just as I expected when I first focused on his hideaway farm at the base of a steep hill descending from Main Street, past one “Jungle” and into another, t’other side the Green River from River Street.

First, let me remind you that I quite innocently happened upon this topic of a long-forgotten pond and Greenfield’s last Indian, whose inconspicuous wigwam was said to have stood near it, probably early to mid 18th century, “next to a fine spring.” This whole search and recovery mission just sprang up by accident as I picked my way through home bookshelves searching for descriptions of local Indian graves, especially surrounding Turners Falls’ dam, east of which stands the infamous Mackin site still in the never-ending Walmart-dispute’s crosshairs. I was at the time confused about ancient burials I had for years read about. Most descriptions I recalled situated interred bodies sitting upright to greet sunrise at the base of east-facing hills. Having read of several burials which fit that mold in various Pioneer Valley town histories, I accepted it as the preferred method for regional indigenous burials. But that ingrained perception changed dramatically after accepting an invitation to UMass/Amherst for an Anthropology Department showing of “Great Falls: Discovery, Destruction and Preservation in a Massachusetts Town.” There, in an untidy Bartlett Hall-basement classroom, eloquent Narragansett Tribal spokesman Doug Harris introduced the film and afterward answered questions that helped spawn more in me. Most confusing was his description of Eastern Algonkian burials oriented toward the setting southwestern sun, facing the happy hunting grounds of Cautantowwit’s House.

Determined to clear my confusion, I purchased and read William S. Simmons’ scholarly 1970 book “Cautantowwit’s House: An Indian Burial Ground of the Island on Conanicut in Narragansett Bay,” which chronicles the archaeological excavation led there by the esteemed anthropologist in the Sixties. With that information digested, I started reviewing indexes of local town histories searching for mention of burials with a southwestern orientation. I found none and was later told by a Lenape Indian and former Friends of Wissatinnewag president that most of the Mackin-site burials face east, overlooking the sacred Connecticut River elbow called Peskeomskut and the morning sun. Then, while flipping pages for the listed “Indian Skeletons” in Lucy Cutler Kellogg’s “History of Greenfield 1900-1929” I discovered a short entry titled “The Last Indian,” read it, and it immediately captured my fancy. The chase was on.

To briefly summarize what has been previously written here in three installments, Kellogg claimed that during a 1914 Women’s Club presentation by famed Greenfield children’s author Mary Prudence Wells Smith — known for her popular “Boy Captive,” “Young Puritans” and “Jolly Good Times” historical novels — she “related many anecdotes of the Indian times told her by her father, and which were related to him in his boyhood by Asa Childs, an old Indian fighter of Deerfield. Among other things brought out was that the last Indian in Greenfield lived in a wigwam in the west part of the meadows on the edge of Bull Head Pond and near a fine spring.”

That tidbit to me implied that the pond cited sat in the Lower Meadows somewhere out by Greenfield Community College, and, being myself an Upper Meadows resident since 1997, I knew precisely who to query. Well, when my captive-audience source phoned his father to ask if he had heard of Bull Head Pond, his dad answered yes, it sat along the southwest corner of their farm, right about where I figured. When I published that discovery and invited reader feedback in an effort to substantiate the location for posterity, well, let’s just say it opened a can of worms. Yes, my trusted source was quickly challenged by none other than his older brother, then, lo, his 86-year-old mother, not to mention several 60- and 70-somethings who grew up in Greenfield and identified a Bull Head Pond at the corner of Woodard Road and Colrain Street, roughly where Davenport Trucking today stands. They all remembered Davenport filling it in with gravel some 50 years ago for the truck yard.

But it doesn’t stop there. No. In fact, we’re just getting started. Octogenarian Bill Allen — a former selectman and, as retired county engineer, perhaps the authority on local roads — decided to throw in his two cents worth. He phoned me at home to inform me that Woodard Road was a very early county road leading from Colrain Street to Wisdom, Shelburne and beyond. He wasn’t sure when it had been designated a (then-Hampshire) county road but was certain it occurred in the 18th century, perhaps even before the Revolution. More new perspective added to old, always helpful to historical investigation. Before Allen’s call, I had known that Colrain Street and the Green River crossing at Smead’s Bridge (Davenport’s) were early, and that the road itself was likely an old Indian trail leading from the downtown plateau to the fertile meadows and beyond. I had thus speculated in print that in my mind it was an unlikely place for a solitary Indian to hide out. But sandwiched between the Green River and the junction of two busy roads? Uh-uh. That made no sense at all to me, seemed more unlikely than ever, despite credible testimony that the pond there in the mid 20th century was called Bull Head by those who fished and skated it.

At that point, I had totally accepted that the pond identified by those sources as Bull Head had indeed been known by that name in the day. But, still, I was not so confident it was the same pond known by that name two and more centuries earlier, and I hinted skepticism in print. Then came a breakthrough tip by late-night weekend email from a Bernardston woman who, curiosity piqued, had embarked on her own Bull-Head-Pond  research. It just so happened that one of her Internet keyword searches dropped her straight into the Google Books edition of David “Willard’s History of Greenfield,” the town’s earliest published history (1838). Near the end of the book she found a biography of William Coleman, a prosperous transplant lawyer who built the historic McCarthy Funeral Home off Bank Row before departing for New York around 1800. The location of his stately new Asher Benjamin home made Coleman the downtown neighbor of Willard (1790-1855), who lived west of the town common. So Willard knew Coleman’s promontory point well and penned a description of the pastoral western prospect from Coleman’s backyard, which reads: “The very fertile and beautiful meadow west of these buildings was, within memory, covered with many lofty walnuts sprinkled over the soil like an orchard, excepting the western part that was covered with alders, among which and near the margin of Bull Head Pond, where is a fine spring of water, once stood the hut or wigwam of a solitary Indian.”

Aha! I rose from my chair and went straight to the bookcase for Willard, reading the Coleman bio, rereading the short segment about the solitary Indian and immediately focusing on Power Court and Power Square off Mill Street. That’s when I thought of contacting Conway, if needed. But first I went through my Dave Allen Maps CD and found little on my maiden journey; then, early the next week on my way to work, pulled into Mowry & Schmidt to see if there were any ponds there. Sure enough, I found one along the western border of the parking lot. Intrigued, I drove around to the top of Bank Row and pulled through McCarthy’s driveway to orient myself with Willard’s view. Once at work, I hunted down Conway’s phone number, called him and got the wheels spinning in a new direction. Willard could not, in my opinion, have been talking about the Bull Head Pond of 20th century fame in the written picture he paints. The Greenfield native would have known the view well, and the scene he sketched just doesn’t fit the Bull-Head-Pond site near Davenport’s. His description implies that the pond, or at least the alder swamp fronting it, was visible as he looked over the open meadow (later the first fairgrounds) that is now a congested Power Square and Power Court. So that would place the site between Mowry & Schmidt and the railroad trestle behind Dunkin Donuts. The Colrain Street Bull Head Pond identified by several living sources is around a sweeping bend and far out of view. Also, that pond would have been on the other side of Green River. Wouldn’t Willard have noted that in his description?

Truthfully, soon as I ruled out the faraway Bull Head site near GCC, my intuition told me that the old pond at Davenport’s was too far away and out of Willard’s Bank-Row world. That’s why I took that first field trip to Mowry & Schmidt, discovered the pond and spoke to Conway about his son’s property under Main Street on dead-end Conway Drive. When I spoke to him on the phone that night from work, I was rushing on deadline, scribbling illegible notes, and ultimately made a key mistake when writing my column the next day. Conway had told me that the small pond with the island I spotted just west of Power Court was known as The Donut, and that there was another, not far west of it, called Horse Shoe Pond. I mistakenly remembered him telling me they were both man-made sometime around 1900. The truth is that Horse Shoe Pond, called “Old Channel” on the earliest map I could find naming it, was not man-made. No, it’s an old oxbow that was long ago separated from the main Green River stem and still holds water, though much less than years ago. Conway remembers Horse Shoe as bigger, deeper and better defined as a kid when he fondly recalls catching — his hands spread apart a foot or better — fat bullheads. He also remembers a marshy spring hole between the Horse Shoe arch and the base of the steep escarpment, where a thin stream bed ran out of it to the river. He says the marsh and stream bed are still discernible but have been filled in by erosion triggered by railroad vibration over the years.

“I think you’ve put the Bull Head Pond mystery to rest,” predicted Conway. “Horse Shoe pond was once called Bull Head. There is no question in my mind.”

I agree. In fact, I do believe the names Bull Head Pond and Old Channel appear in the earliest deeds related to that fertile, secluded hollow between Power Court and the railroad trestle. I tried to research it and cried uncle after two unsuccessful visits totaling up to three hours at the Franklin County Registry of Deeds. There were just too many transactions and legal maneuverings to plow through, starting with an insolvent Coombs estate that got tangled up and remained that way from just after the Civil War until the dawning of the 20th century, when Conway’s grandfather purchased it. I am thoroughly convinced that due diligence by a capable researcher will bear me out.

In closing, I must say I love the symbolism of that last Indian choosing to live buried deep in the lowest fringe of downtown Greenfield along a sparkling escarpment spring passing an ancient, detached piece of Green River bed that became a pond where fat, tasty bullhead lurked. It all just fits snug as a skullcap.

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