New Look At Falls Fight Retreat Path

How about a couple of new twists to a centuries-old tale – one bringing in natural history, another introducing a largely forgotten waterfall that vanished in the name of progress and interstate highways?

Today’s discussion is centered around the fabled “Falls Fight” of May 19, 1676, a surprise attack that turned King Philip’s War in favor of colonials coming down the homestretch. On that fateful day, Connecticut Valley militia led from Hatfield by Boston Capt. William Turner descended upon a sleeping, pre-dawn fishing village of Indians camped at Peskeomskut Falls between Gill and Turners Falls, slaughtering mostly non-combatant old men and women. Then, the retreating soldiers had the tables turned on them by vengeful, counterattacking Indians racing in pursuit from adjacent riverside encampments.

The fleeing soldiers’ retreat took them over the hill that is now north of Route 2 and west of Main Road before crossing Fall River at Factory Hollow. From that point on, the battle appears to have degenerated into a helter-skelter dash for survival along two wetland corridors. The retreat path is now under the microscope of Connecticut archaeologist Kevin McBride and his metal-detecting battlefield-reconstruction sleuths combing the ground for associated musket balls.

Once across Fall River to their awaiting horses, the soldiers had a choice: follow scout Experience Hinsdale south toward Deerfield through the dense tangles of White Ash Swamp, or follow Capt. Turner, Lt. Samuel Holyoke, and probably guide Benjamin Wait back down the same path they had arrived on, crossing Green River near its confluence with Mill Brook.

Those who followed Hinsdale were quickly dispatched by Indians. The others carried on, had a fighting chance.

The four-mile trek through heavy wetland cover to the Green River ford followed White Ash Swamp’s northern perimeter to Cherry Rum Brook, which merged with larger Mill Brook a half-mile from Green River. About 200 yards east of Green River, at the top of what would become a small Greenfield industrial village known as Nash’s Mills, stood a bedrock waterfall cascading down exposed red sandstone to the Green River.

According to Terrain Navigator Pro measurements, the elevation drop from the west edge of the Silver Street-Conway Road intersection to the mouth of Mill Brook is approximately 60 feet. The straight-line distance from top to bottom is 590 feet, the meandering brook’s length 780 feet.

Tradition has it that Indians wounded Capt. Turner crossing Green River, and that he died on the west bank, just downstream from today’s Green River Swimming and Recreation Area. A Turner Monument now stands along Nash’s Mill Road, not far away.

Though early 20th century Greenfield historian Lucy Cutler Kellogg claims there was an island at the site of Turner’s death, there seems to be little corroborating evidence. That doesn’t mean there wasn’t an island. Such details can be lost over time. Perhaps deed research would confirm the island. It’s always possible where two streams with strong currents collide to create a swirling, depositional eddy. There is indeed a sizeable island just upstream from Mill Brook’s outflow into Green River on 1961 Interstate Route 91 construction maps. Could that be the island Kellogg notes? Who knows? In the big picture, an island at the site is insignificant compared to the presence of falls, which would have produced the cover sound of a loud spring roar during Turner’s retreat.

McBride and company have confirmed the retreat route identified by many historians, recovering musket balls along both banks of the meandering, at times steep Cherry Rum-Mill Brook corridor. Though the team is still in the process of sorting it all out, the evidence seems to place the colonials following the south bank as the Indians picked away at them from elevated ambush sites along the opposite bank.

Steep ravines and sharp turns presented several advantageous locations for surprise attacks throughout the wetland terrain. The Indians had a significant advantage. They knew the land. The colonials did not.

The vexing question for posterity is: What did the landscape between Peskeomskut and the Green River look like in 1676? That is, before the brook was dammed above the waterfalls to create Nash’s Mills Pond – and before Interstate 91 construction removed the bedrock falls and tunneled Mill Brook under 91 and Nash’s Mills Road, where today it exits two arched concrete tunnels and flows down a walled ramp to the Green River floodplain?

More precisely, what were the fleeing soldiers facing as they raced down that final half-mile from the Cherry Rum-Mill Brook confluence to the Green River?

I could find no reference to the Mill Brook falls in George Sheldon’s History of Deerfield (1895), which is curious when you consider it was cited four years earlier in the Greenfield Gazette’s “Centennial Edition.” The falls are again referenced in Francis M. Thompson’s History of Greenfield (1904), which makes sense: Thompson intimately knew the falls and dam supplying waterpower at Nash’s Mills. He himself owned a chisel manufactory there, which burned in 1871.

Thompson wrote that Mill Brook was “improved for mills” at a site “located at the considerable falls near its entrance into the Green River at Nash’s Mills.” He also says Jonathan Catlin “at a very early date” had a mill there. That means, “before 1755, when he deeded half interest to Daniel Nash for a mill and mill yard.” Eleven years later (1766), Catlin deeded the other half-interest to another miller, Aaron Denio Jr.”

Published descriptions of the falls are vague at best. Thompson basically parrots the “Centennial Edition” account, which states, “The height of the fall, excellent chance for flowage and secure rock foundation for a dam made the water privilege there of much value.” What height, he does not say.  

A circa 1895 photo looking up at Warner Manufacturing Co. from Nash’s Mills Road provides visible evidence. The black and white shot – rescued at auction in a Greenfield photo album dated 1899 – displays the southwest corner of the three-story, clapboard factory building, with a dam flowing onto a natural stone waterfall along the south side. The water flows about 10 feet over the dam, falling upon a long stretch of roiling falls cascading over bedrock toward the Green River. What cannot be seen is Nash’s Mills Pond behind the dam, or the iron-railed Leyden Road bridge crossing the narrow ravine at the head of the falls.

A factor that speaks to the site’s early industrial value is the 1719 Deerfield road laid from the west end of Green River Village (Main Street in Greenfield) to Country Farms (the fertile northern Greenfield flood plain east of the Green River, extending south on both sides of Leyden Road from the pumping station to the base of a serpentine upper terrace traversed by Country Club Road).

Following the path of today’s Conway Street and Leyden Road, that old road crossed Mill Brook a short distance north of the Silver Street outflow, where the landscape was dramatically altered during Interstate 91 construction in 1963-64. The bedrock waterfall was blasted and removed to hollow out the I-91 corridor now spanned by a long overpass connecting Conway Street and Leyden Road.

The year 1719 was very early for roadbuilding through what was to become Greenfield, strongly suggesting that it had been an existing indigenous footpath to the falls and beyond. In Native American culture, significant waterfalls were sites of high spirit, celebrated as portals to the underworld, as well as important fishing places. Petroglyphs and pictographs are often found around falls where migrating fish were seasonally harvested. Spring salmon may have accumulated in the settling pool at the base of Mill Brook falls annually, and the same can be said of Eastern brook trout running upriver for their annual fall spawning.

Tributary paths likely intersected the marshy main path from Peskeomskut to Green River. This terrain that today sits north of Silver Street and south of Barton Road was known in the early-historic period as Trap Plain, a bountiful hunting and trapping ground. As recent as the final quarter of the 19th century, Cherry Rum Brook was still referred to on maps as “Trap Plain Brook.”

By the time of King Philip’s War, 40 years after the founding of Springfield, beavers had been overharvested to extirpation in southern New England by Indian trappers supplying the Pynchon fur-trading dynasty. That doesn’t mean signs of old beaver colonies were not prevalent. The remains of old beaver ponds must have left dense marshland and wet, fertile soil along brooks that had been dammed.

So, Turner and his men were most likely negotiating swampy, jungle-like habitat through the Cherry Rum/Mill Brook corridor. Plus, once they got near the Mill Brook falls, their ability to detect sounds around them would have been greatly diminished if not totally erased.

Isn’t it interesting how, despite being surprised and totally unprepared for a daybreak attack on their sleeping village, the Indians had Turner and his fleeing troops right where they wanted them during the retreat? The colonials were trying to escape through unfamiliar terrain well known by their native pursuers, whose people had hunted there for millennia. Unlike their prey, such as deer, bear and moose, the colonial soldiers were ignorant of trails and terrain, and hesitant to leave the beaten paths, making them easy marks. On horseback, their movement was even easier to detect.

Given such overwhelming odds against survival, isn’t it amazing that the so-called “boy hero,” 16-year-old soldier Jonathan Wells of Hatfield, lived to tell and retell his famous escape tale, one that’s been picked at for centuries by historians.

Although I have been unable to uncover any detailed descriptions or survey plans unveiling precise dimensions or height of the Mill Brooks falls, I haven’t given up. I thought maybe the local newspaper would be helpful, but a cursory probe of online Greenfield Gazette and Courier archives was disappointing at best.

Excepting destruction of the stately, brick North Parish Church and the rescue of a buried Lane Construction worker from Brattleboro, there also appears to have been little reporting on the Interstate 91 project. Curious? Yes. The local newspaper should have been all over that Route 91 project that destroyed landmarks, altered trout streams and changed the town forever. But, no. Not the case.

All I can do is keep digging and sharing what I uncover. I’m not alone. It’s a four-man collaborative effort, with lots of email and phone calls among us. Exciting indeed.

We’re on it. It’s dynamic. Who knows? Maybe this narrative will pull in other recollections and photos. One can only hope.

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