Oxbow Island

The task now confronting me appears at first glance as a steep hill to climb on many levels.

Where to start? That’s my first dilemma, because you must understand we’re dealing with a complex subject in a place familiar to few, except maybe by distant observation out the car window. Plus, it all makes such perfect sense to me because I do know the swamp, the plain and the history at Hopewell. The black soil there stains my soul and pulses through my consciousness, some of it planted by oral history. But this special place of family lore recently took on a whole new dimension, one that sort of pulled everything into focus and explained lingering questions like: Why did Indians cling so determinedly to that fertile riverside acreage below Mt. Sugarloaf? And why did the Anglos with the deepest roots there refer to that narrow terrace rising between two others stepping west from the Connecticut River as “The Island?” I have only twice heard of that central plain described in those terms, both times by late Sanderson relatives who descended from East Whately’s earliest colonial settlers. I never associated this island with water, though; just interpreted it as the description of a distinctive, raised land mass sandwiched between others. Wrong!

The thread stitching together all scraps collected over many generations into a broad, comprehensible quilt was a discovery made more than a month ago during a home visit by a Smith College biology professor. The man had read my columns about an archaeological excavation at the “DEDIC Paleo Site,” inconspicuously situated on Sugarloaf’s southern skirt, and was interested in reviewing and possibly copying photos for his spring classes. Although his focus was vegetation, he wanted to view Kirk Spurr’s CD photo collection of artifacts, some of which I had used to illustrate columns about the site carbon-dated to 10,000 BC.

The young man arrived at my home around 11 a.m. Dec. 12. We sat and chatted in the west parlor for more than an hour. The more we conversed, the more we connected, he being from West Whately, another special place in my small world. When I speculated that the steep, narrow Sugarloaf Brook ravine on the eastern periphery — thought to be a caribou kill zone — likely held much more water during the Paleo period, we spun off into an exciting new direction. Yes, he said, there was no doubt about that. The site was located along the western edge of the Whately Oxbow, and recent scholarship placed the river’s edge all the way to the lip of the Paleo site’s eastern escarpment as late as 700 years and definitely between 2,000 and 3,000 years ago. Furthermore, that oxbow had evolved over time. Near where the Sunderland Bridge today spans the river, there would have been a Paleo-era lake protruding west off the main artery like a bulbous aneurysm. Most important from my perspective, which I will later revisit, is that by the time William Pynchon and Co. arrived in the 1630’s to establish a Springfield trading depot and explore the upper Pioneer Valley, all that was left of Whately’s oxbow was a slim, 2.4-mile, forested swamp shaped like a crescent moon, accompanied by a narrow flood plain hugging the bank and three raised terraces stepping back from it toward Hopewell Hill.

Imagine that! Despite being among very few folks above ground who have actually trudged through the densest, thorniest, muddiest parts of that Whately Oxbow swamp, I never even knew it had been one of three western Massachusetts oxbows on the meandering Connecticut between Sugarloaf and the Northampton Meadows. Given this new interpretation of the land, which in retrospect made perfect sense, I gained new understanding and the image of a Paleo fisherman casting a fishing line right into the oxbow lake off the DEDIC site’s steep escarpment. But to get a better grip, I really had to read what Smith College graduate student Marjorie M. Holland had written 30 years ago.

Now an Ole Miss biology professor, Ms. Holland wrote a Master’s thesis around 1980 on the three oxbows, then collaborated with Smith professor C. John Burk to publish two scholarly magazine articles on the subject. My young professor guest promised to dig out the articles and share them with me, which he promptly did by email. The first one, published in 1982 by Northeast Geology magazine, is titled “Relative Age of Western Massachusetts Oxbow Lakes;” the second, published two years later in Rhodora, the New England Botanical Club Journal, is titled “The Herb Strata of Three Connecticut River Oxbow Swamp Forests.”

Anyone who grew up in the Pioneer Valley and pays attention knows of the Northampton Oxbow located in the ’Hamp Meadows and dissected by Interstate 91. A flood disconnected the extended western oxbow loop from the main stem of the Connecticut in 1840, but by that time many historic paintings from the Mt. Holyoke summit had recorded it for posterity, the most famous of the lot Thomas Cole’s 1836 oil on canvas masterpiece “The Oxbow.” As for the Hatfield Oxbow, it was disconnected from the main stem before Northampton’s but was intact for the earliest 18th century Hatfield maps and is still today often filled by seasonal flooding that snakes through extant ravines all the way around its western terminus at Hatfield Pond, just south of Bradstreet and west of The Bashin.

Whately’s ancient oxbow extends from Sugarloaf’s base to Straits Road in Whately, some 2.4 miles of mostly old forest that has not been flooded during historic times, including even the worst flood on record, that of 1936, when River Road was underwater but not the middle terrace or island. The pertinent question that arises is: Given the fact they had never seen the oxbow or known of its existence, where did my Sanderson relatives who farmed the land come up with “The Island” designation for that raised terrace behind their farm? I checked 19th century geologist/author Edward Hitchcock, who does not mention a Whately Oxbow anywhere, then discovered that Whately historians J.H. Temple (1872) and J.M. Crafts (1899) also made no such mention. Likewise, there is not a word about any such thing as an oxbow there by other valley historians overlapping the 19th and early 20th centuries. No, it appears that this oxbow was discovered during modern times, perhaps beginning with Holland, who I tried several times to reach by phone without success.

Going from personal experience, I have worked for the farmers who still own the land there, routinely buy vegetables from their neighbors, have hunted there for years and talked to many residents, yet I have never once heard any mention of “The Island” except by those two relatives whose family set its roots there in the 18th century. Winthrop Sanderson was the first to mention it, naming “The Island” as the site of an Indian village where Hitchcock had mined most of his Whately collection of Indian artifacts for Amherst College, circa 1860. When I asked my Great Aunt Gladys — a spinster who came with the purchase of my South Deerfield home bought after my grandfather’s 1980 death — about “The Island,” she was vaguely familiar with it, saying, “Ayuh, Father spoke of it. I think it was somewhere behind his father’s farm. He said they used to find Indian arrowheads there.”

My guess is that the name originated from Indians who had mingled with the earliest settlers and shared the name. Then those families passed it along from generation to generation until their family left the property. As they moved out, the name faded to a whisper, which I luckily stumbled upon quite by accident. Like the Beaver Myth of Sugarloaf fame, the image of an oxbow island was planted by oral Indian tradition, this of an ancient village protected on all sides by the water of an oxbow moat. Perhaps I’m wrong, but that’s my suspicion, and I’m confident I’ll eventually pin it down, maybe even next week if Holland ever calls me back.

… Ooops. Talk about terrible timing. I made one last call to the University of Mississippi at just before 5 p.m. Wednesday and Holland answered. She was in a rush to get to class but confirmed that indeed she and Burk and others had discovered the Whately Oxbow around 1980 by examining topo maps and hoofing it through the terrain. She said she wants to resume our conversation later this week, when she has time to chat with a map in front of her.

And it doesn’t stop there. After arriving at work later that night, my phone rang and it was another source, this one a 90-year-old woman whose family bought the Walter Whitney Sanderson farm in the 1930s; Winthrop was his son. She had spoken to a younger sister who had recollections of skating on a secluded pond out back in a place called “The Island.”

Sorry, no time for a rewrite now. Must wait till next week, but things are looking up. Holland said she’s working on a new WMass-Oxbows paper, and my theory about an Indian origin for the name “Island” is looking better by the second.

So, off I go. See you next week. The top half of my deadline hourglass is empty.

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