Colrain Mastodon Tooth

Mastodon remains in the neighborhood? You betcha! Long ago. Just two miles north of my home. Then – presto! – the ancient remains move even closer in a genealogical vein. Surreal. Why does this stuff happen?

I suppose such discoveries are bound to become more frequent when aging out in a place where one’s roots lie deep. So, I guess this is an example of that, demonstrating once again how small one’s place can be. Spooky small. At times, mind-boggling.

Six weeks ago, I had no clue that a mastodon tooth had been found in the fall of 1871 in a frosty Colrain “muck bed” not far from home by farmer Elias Bardwell, reported by Professor Edward Hitchcock, Jr., who identified it. Hitchcock reported that Bardwell intended to revisit the site in the spring of 1872 to look for additional remains. Whether that ever happened is not known. 

Now, after a little research, this discovery has become a family matter. But let me return to that later.

I became aware of this forgotten Colrain mastodon tooth during the final week of November, just before Thanksgiving. I was visiting the South Deerfield home of friend Bud Driver, who was hosting a couple of PhD archaeologists – Richard Michael “Mike” Gramly of Andover and Stuart Fiedel of Amherst. We were there to discuss mastodon-bone artifacts in the possession of Gramly, who was passing through on the last leg of his trip home from Kentucky and Ohio.

Toward the conclusion of our rambling three-hour discussion, we turned to the subject of Fiedel and Driver’s ongoing study of historic mastodon discoveries in the western half of Massachusetts, beginning with a South Egremont site known to scientists as “Ivory Pond,” with which I was vaguely familiar. There, in June 1982, landowner Thomas Marino was excavating a pond and discovered skeletal remains of a mastodon. 

With a collection of bones still in his possession, they were in need of the latest, most-accurate radiocarbon dating. So, Fiedel, Driver and Robert Feranec of the New York State Museum in Albany recently visited the site and retrieved from Marino’s collection a collagen sample that yielded an AMS radiocarbon date of 11,885 plus or minus 30. That calibrates to between 13,580 to 13,770 calendar years before present (BP).

Now, Fiedel has the radiocarbon date for mastodon remains found in 1884 in the central Massachusetts town of Northborough and is near completion of a soon-to-be-published report. Next, the three diligent researchers, committed to studying the peopling of the Americas and its effects on the native mammals of the continent, intend to focus on Bardwell’s Colrain discovery, recognized as Massachusetts’ first known unearthing of mastodon remains.

When our pre-Thanksgiving discussion turned to the mysterious Colrain find, Fiedel inquired if I knew Shearer Road? His examination of an 1871 county map suggested that the Bardwell farm was located on that road. 

Yes, of course I knew the road. It was at the top of the hill behind my upper Greenfield Meadows home. Not only that, but I had hunted deer and turkeys there, and once ran my dogs there daily. So, yes, I even knew the contours.

Familiar with the landscape but not any details about the 1871 find, I immediately suspected two adjacent sites that fit the type of habitat where most mastodon skeletons have in the past been found. To me, the two most likely sites were what I refer to as “spring holes,” that is the swampy headwaters of two small, spring-fed brooks in the western, upland Green River watershed. The first, Punch Brook, rises atop Smead Hill and runs about a mile into Hinsdale Brook just downstream from my home. The second, Workman Brook, rises slightly north and west of there, on Randolph family acreage east of Van Nuys Road in East Colrain, running more than two miles before emptying into Green River just south of the Nelson Road-Green River Road intersection in the town’s southeast corner.

How exciting. The chase was on. Right in my backyard, no less.

I took a ride to East Colrain with Driver to show him the layout, then studied 1858 and 1871 maps that identify family homes along the roads. The maps showed two East Colrain Bardwell farms, likely contiguous: one atop Shearer Hill, the other off East Colrain Road along the northwestern base of Shearer Hill. Then I researched the Colrain Bardwells to figure which was the “Elias Bardwell farm” referred to in records of the tooth discovery. 

What was confusing was that the first Bardwell to call Colrain home was named Elias (1763-1818), and he obviously could not have been the man who found the tooth. Further research showed that Elias had a grandson named Elias (1837-1915), son of Amos (1792-1875), who was undoubtedly the “A. Bardwell” identified on the maps as the owner of the East Colrain Road farm. The “B. Bardwell” in the farm atop Shearer Hill was Amos’ younger brother Baxter (1803-1888), who, according to Deerfield historian George Sheldon’s genealogy, “settled on the old homestead.”

I contacted Greenfield surveyor and map merchant Dave Allen, who I knew had an important connection to Shearer Hill. Maybe he knew something about the old Bardwell acreage. If not, maybe the topic would stir his curiosity and him into action. 

Mission accomplished. Allen soon embarked on deed research, a staple of a surveyor’s work, and concluded that the Elias Bardwell farm where the tooth was found was not atop Shearer Hill as we first thought. Instead, it was off East Colrain Road, overlooking Workman Brook to the south, the brook crossing East Colrain Road and traversing wetland on both sides of it.

Further genealogical research bore personal family fruit with closer links than expected. I knew from the start that I tapped into the Connecticut Valley Bardwell family through my second great-grandmother Abbie Bardwell of Shelburne/Montague/Whately, wife of Thomas Sanderson of Whately. Not surprisingly, that Bardwell branch was distant. 

Not so with another Colrain family I tap into. Little did I know that a much closer relationship to Elias Bardwell existed through my paternal grandmother Merriam Snow, whose great-grandmother and Elias’s mother were sisters. That, from my perspective, is not a distant relative. My grandmother likely knew of her Bardwell relatives on East Colrain Road when, as a child, she spent summers at her grandparents’ farm and orchards off Fort Lucas Road, a short distance west.

Enough of the genealogy, though. Back to Ice-Age mastodons (Mammut americanum), to which I can honestly say I never gave any serious thought before 2014. That’s when friend Gramly started excavating skeletal remains from a Middletown, NY, marsh. His dig recovered bones and ivory from the ancient proboscidean beast dubbed John Charles in his 2017 monograph, “Archaeological Recovery of the Bowser Road Mastodon, Orange County, New York.” Among the recovered bones were some he identified as artifacts – a daring assessment that went against the grain.

I clearly recall Gramly checking in by telephone from time to time during this 2014 dig to enthusiastically report new discoveries, observations, and hypotheses. So excited was he that I could seldom get a word in edgewise, so I listened and learned. 

But still, despite his intellectual excitement, my own personal interest remained lukewarm. “Why should I be interested in ancient North American elephants last roaming the continent 12,000 years ago?” I pondered. “What was the allure? What did it mean to me; to the Connecticut Valley?”

Then came the grappling hook that set the barbs and pulled me. Gramly seized my fascination during an evening phone conversation from his motel room when he introduced the human element – better still, hunter-gatherer ritual and spirituality.

“The prevailing wisdom has been that these beasts came to water during the late Pleistocene, got mired in mud, and died. I say that’s pure hooey,” he said. “There are human hands all over this site. In my opinion, John Charles was killed by hunters and, get this: I believe there’s evidence of ritualistic offerings right there in plain sight among the skeletal remains.”

What he was referring to were notched atlatl blades crafted from mastodon ribs and, he said, intentionally broken in half as grave offerings when new rib bones were salvaged from the fallen beast as raw material for new blades. Gramly’s cutting-edge and very controversial hypothesis is that these grave offerings were left in respect for the fallen prey by young hunters participating in their first kill – an important rite of manhood versus a dangerous beast. 

Gramly suspected that if he reviewed other collections of North American mastodon remains, they would reveal the same, previously overlooked, broken atlatl ribs and other bone and ivory artifacts. Well, guess what? His hypothesis was confirmed by searching through stored remains in upstate New York, Ohio, and Kentucky. Bingo! There were other broken atlatl blades, not to mention other artifacts crafted from mastodon bones and ivory. Not certain of all the artifacts’ function, he’s still working on identification and trading ideas with Fiedel and other colleagues.

For years, experts have cited the absence of stone tools – Clovis points, scrapers, celts, and other and tools – as proof that there was no human association to the mastodon remains found over the years east of the Mississippi River (in contrast to the presence of stone tools at western proboscidean kill sites). Gramly begs to differ. He says archaeologists’ focus is too narrow, that the absence of stone tools could be irrelevant. Bone and ivory tools were routinely used by Old World hunters dating back far beyond 13,000 years. So, why not in the New World? Aren’t we dealing with some of the same gene pools? 

That kind of open-mindedness is what separates Gramly from many other American archaeologists, and creates friction with some who are no more educated, experienced, or credentialed than him but far more rigid. Gramly has one great advantage over his detractors: the guts to challenge conventional wisdom.

So here I sit, formerly unenthused about extinct proboscidean beasts, when suddenly, out of the blue, I learn of this long-forgotten mastodon tooth that showed up in my neighborhood. Not only that, but it was discovered by a previously unknown close Bardwell relative of mine who had it in his possession into the 20th century and likely until his death. 

Who knows where this tooth is today? It could be resting in plain sight on a Colrain shelf, an attic drawer, a library cellar, or offered for sale without provenance for the third time on eBay. Then again, it could have been trashed long ago by someone ignorant of its importance.

It would appear that the only way to learn more about this mastodon tooth is to somehow find the site from which it was pulled, and probe for more evidence. Skeletal remains could still be recoverable there. 

The search could start as early as spring, with landowner permission. Fiedel, Driver and company just want a bone, a tooth, or an ivory tusk that can be radiocarbon dated. All I can say is that I’d love to watch this fascinating process unfold.

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