It’s All About Place

So, what exactly does a retired man with time on his hands do during the sultry dog days? That was a recent question asked of me in passing through the marketplace.

I can’t say I gave a thoughtful answer. The questioner wasn’t expecting one. Just small talk to which I responded with a playful quip. You know. Something like, “As little as possible,” or, “Trying to stay out of mischief.” Ha-ha.

Hours later, as the setting sun cast me into dusky introspection, I revisited the question and internally answered it.

I try to remain productive, though at a slower, steadier pace than when work loomed largest. I still read a lot, write a little, and chat face-to-face, by phone or email. I also discipline myself to pick away at a chore or two a day, trying not to overburden myself with drudgery. Plus, there’s always the little stuff – caring for pets, winding, oiling and regulating antique clocks, feeding the woodstove in winter, keeping the house cool in summer, airing out the barn when the sky is high and dry. I pick berries when ripe and water the Roma tomato daily, suckering and tying as needed.

I even cleaned out the barn this summer. Long overdue. Finally, after 22 years of procrastination fueled by the responsibility of stewarding historic property, I concluded that I did not have, and likely would not find, a use for the barn collection left behind by former generations. With my wife’s assistance, I realized reminiscence had become clutter.

So, we went to work, selling some contents to dealers and reorganizing what was left. It put a little cash in our pocket for miscellaneous expenses like fruit and vegetable runs. There’s more. A couple dump runs will clear the stables, especially in the four not-so open stalls. Then, alas, a tidy, organized barn, its cupola and open chestnut framing a statement to its historic New England character.

I view all the aforementioned as mindless routine, though rewarding, mundane chores that must be done. Yet never can I put such chores in a league with reading and researching and studying the place where I was born and call home.

I’m talking about towns like Deerfield and Greenfield, Whately and Conway. But it goes deeper, expanding into Franklin County and the Pioneer Valley, Massachusetts, New England and the Northeast. Then there are the rivers: the Connecticut, Deerfield and Green, Millers and Westfield, Ashuelet and West, even the Merrimack and Penobscot. They’re all connected in a sense of place that drives me.

Everything revolves around place, inspiring my reading, travels and discourse. When you think of it, what do you really know if you don’t understand your place? It must be a lonely, hollow existence for those who move so often that they never find one that’s theirs.

In recent weeks, there’s been an enticing historical buzz in the air. Lots of little ongoing projects that you don’t hear much about. As a result, I reread two books and, at the telephone suggestion of independent archaeologist Mike Gramly, added one to my library that, having finished it, I know should have been purchased long ago. I thought it was “dated.” Uh-uh. Not for the most part.

My first reread was Harral Ayres’ The Great Trail of New England, a hard-to-find 1940 study of the Indian footpath that led Puritan pioneers to the Connecticut Valley, where, between 1633 and ‘35, they settled Windsor, Hartford, Wethersfield, and Springfield. I remember buying the title from the Brattle Street Bookstore years ago. I had spotted a 1939 ad in the “Bulletin of the Massachusetts Archaeological Society,” and hunted it down online. One copy available. Not cheap. Worth it.

My renewed interest in the indigenous footpaths that greeted New England pioneers to these shores and led them up and down the coast and inland was spurred by recent interaction with an energetic group of Conway Historical Commissioners and local-history sleuths tracing the town’s oldest roads and cellar holes. All Connecticut Valley towns on both sides of the river, in the flatlands and hills, were settled along such foot-wide paths that greeted pioneers. These trails evolved into bridal and cart paths, county and town roads and turnpikes.

Although Ayres’ book doesn’t venture this far north, it describes the major artery from Boston to Hartford and New York, and mentions the tributaries leading to Broookfield, Lancaster, and Springfield. Although unstated, those northern tributaries off that southern New England east-west artery intersected the Connecticut Valley trails, eventually crossing our Mohawk Trail, it another major, indigenous, east-west footpath from the coast to the Hudson Valley and beyond.

Ayres details the landscape surrounding the trail as well as Indian villages and friendly interactions with Natives along the way. An important tool he uses to capture the trail’s essence is John Winthrop, Jr.’s diary recording his circuitous, 10-day, 230-mile round trip from Boston to Connecticut and back. His late-fall route from Boston to Windsor goes – accidentally – on the northern path to Springfield. From there, he travels south to the Windsor ferry and Hartford, then south to Saybrook, where he takes the coastal path home though Providence.

Half of his tiny journal was written in Latin, the other half English. The Latin portion was translated and published for the first time in Ayres’ work. The narrative describes river crossings, bartering for food with Indians, and overnights under trailside wigwam frames the men had to cover. Their dealings with Natives they encountered were friendly – and remember, the Pequot War, New England’s first Indian war, had ended only seven years earlier, so Indians had reason to distrust colonists.

My Connecticut Path read dovetailed nicely into an ongoing, cooperative, local-history probe in which I had been involved with contact-period scholar and friend Peter A. Thomas. With work already underway for Deerfield’s 350th birthday celebration in 2023, Thomas has been working diligently to unravel the deeds and settlement of Deerfield, which began in the mid-1660s as Pocumtuck, a compensatory 8,000-acre grant to Dedham.

Thomas isn’t the first researcher to examine the confusing earliest deeds, and won’t be the last. However, unless some forgotten seventeenth-century translation key comes to light in the secret drawer of a dusty attic dresser, the incomprehensible Indian place names may never be deciphered.

Still, what is certain is that the first colonial survey crew, explorers, fur traders, and settlers like Samuel Hinsdale and Samson Frary traveled to the Connecticut Valley by way of Ayres’ trails. From Springfield, they took the trail through Westfield to Northampton and on to Hadley, Deerfield, and Northfield.

Enter Gramly, a paleontologist with a fascination of the Connecticut Valley that goes back at least 12,350 years – the radiocarbon-date attached to the Paleoindian “Sugarloaf Site” he has twice excavated along the Whately-Deerfield line. Gramly will implore, to anyone willing to listen, the importance of our valley in the North American archaeological record.

So, of course, he’s game when the discussion turns to ancient indigenous trails leading to and along New England’s largest river. Gramly speaks about such topics with unencumbered glee, not to mention venerable insight. Few understand the deep history and peopling of the Americas like Mike Gramly. Even fewer are willing to get their hands dirty, their shirt saturated discovering more.

First and foremost, Gramly is a teacher – one who’ll talk the night away to curiosities. He’s a book author, publisher, and dealer, well-read with a personal library counting into the thousands, most of it archaeological and anthropological. Thus, he’s a great source for suggested readings.

“I don’t know if you own C.C. Willoughby’s Antiquities of the New England Indians (1935),” he told me during a recent telephone conversation. “If not, you ought to. Though written long ago, it’s relevant, and the author winds in and out of your valley.”

Cha-ching, I found one online, the gilt on the spine and cover bright and crisp, the binding, as my late father used to say, ‘Tight as the bark on a four-foot oak.’”

Gramly was right. Willoughby shares much helpful information about Connecticut Valley Indians, their tools and culture, plus many detailed sketches of valley artifacts collected in Deerfield, Gill, Montague, Hadley, South Hadley, Holyoke, Springfield, Windsor, and Hartford. The illustrated relics were then housed at museums in Deerfield, Amherst and Holyoke, along with various local historical societies. I’d venture a guess that many of these treasures are no longer where Willoughby found them. Like so many priceless Museum artifacts, they were probably sold or pilfered out the back door long ago.

Reading Willoughby’s narrative on Maine’s mysterious “Red Paint People,” their cemeteries and culture, piqued my dormant interest in the topic and sent me to a bookcase for Bruce Bourque’s The Swordfish Hunters (2012). I bought the book and had it autographed by the author at Gramly’s last Sugarloaf Site dig in 2013. I immediately read it, and in June 2016 I hosted Bourque and Gramly overnight for a memorable Lake Hitchcock symposium at Eaglebrook School.

My reread of Bourque’s groundbreaking work was far more meaningful than the initial read, when I was new to archaeology and barely knew the difference between a feature and an artifact.

Isn’t it interesting how discovery missions get started? This time the impetus was a study of old Conway roads and older Deerfield deeds, discussions with scholars Thomas and Gramly, reading an old book, rereading another and a newer one, and melding the information into form. Yes, Ayres, Willoughby, and Bourque brought me home, with little nudges from Gramly and Thomas.

Although it’s a fact that “Red Paint” cemeteries are a coastal phenomenon not found here, there were indeed Connecticut Valley burials marked with mortuary-ceremonial red ochre. So, a form of “red paint” in a similar context does indeed show up here… What does it mean?

This search, and all of its diversions, are a work in progress. It’s addictive and underway, new information continually tweaking the narrative. I must keep reading, following leads from people who know more than me and asking questions, many questions, all related to this place, one where my occidental DNA is found in most of the oldest graveyards.

There’s lots to learn from those “historic” burial grounds reaching back 300 or 400 years, yet far more from our indigenous prehistory that digs some 13,000 years deeper.

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