War-Club Speculation

Scholar Marge Bruchac filled the house. Standing room only for her January 26 presentation that kicked off Historic Deerfield’s three-legged Winter Lecture Series, “Captivated: Histories and Legacies of the 1704 Raid on Deerfield.”

Who said the Happy Valley doesn’t give a hoot about our indigenous past? Deerfield Academy security officials would beg to differ. They had to bar the doors at 250-seat Garonzik Auditorium before Historic Deerfield public historian Barbara Mathews had finished introducing Dr. Bruchac’s 2 p.m. PowerPoint lecture. The topic was “Before 1704: Wampum Traditions and Landscapes of Memory.”

An upstate New York native of Abenaki descent, Bruchac has deep academic ties to the valley, and has served for many years as a Historic Deerfield consultant on Native American affairs. She earned her undergraduate degree at Smith College in 1999, then got her master’s (2003) and doctorate (2007) at UMass-Amherst. Today she’s an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania, where she coordinates the Ivy League school’s Native American and Indigenous Studies program.

Not only is she a familiar figure on the local lecture circuit, but so too are brother Joseph and his son Jesse, both Native American storytellers.

Bruchac’s Sunday-afternoon presentation touched on a little of everything from our slice of the Connecticut Valley indigenous palette. She went through it chronologically – from deep history of the Pocumtuck Range’s ancient Beaver Myth, to the European Contact Period, to post-King Philip’s War (KPW) diaspora, to the displaced valley Natives’ return to fight in wars against English colonists occupying their old homeland, accompanied by French soldiers and Indian allies from northern villages stretching all the way to the St. Lawrence Seaway.

What most caught my attention, and really got my wheels spinning, was an unexpected subject with which I was quite familiar and about which I had written not long ago.

In discussing the meaning and uses of wampum, Bruchac turned to use as inlay on Indian war clubs. To illustrate this practice, she brought to the screen many examples, including a rare 17th-century ceremonial club with strong local ties and mystery.

This decorated wooden club with a maple patina has a Connecticut Valley provenance dating back to KPW (1675-76), and very likely to the infamous “Falls Fight” of May 19, 1676 or its immediate aftermath. It has been said that young John King II – who lived in Northampton and eventually rose to the rank of lieutenant, but was just an 18-year-old boy at the bloody pre-dawn ambush of a sleeping Indian fishing village composed of mostly old men, women, and children – picked up the club on that Riverside/Gill site now under the federal scrutiny of the so-called Peskeomskut Battlefield Grant study.

That attack, led by Captains Turner and Holyoke, wreaked havoc and mayhem on the unsuspecting, festive Indians and turned the war in colonial favor. Bruchac didn’t seem to doubt King family tradition that the famous club was picked up at the “Falls Fight” or somewhere along one of many chaotic retreat paths back to Hatfield, a popular opinion that can probably never be proven.

A detailed footnote in noted anthropologist Edmund “Ted” Carpenter’s Two Essays: Chief & Greed lays out the full King family provenance of the ceremonial club. The rare relic remained in the King family for some 300 years before being “loaned” in the 1970s by Esther Diefendorf to New York City’s Museum of the American Indian (MAI), founded by wealthy, unscrupulous Edwardian collector George Gustav Heye (1874-1957). The club was never returned to King descendants, but was instead sold out the back door after Heye’s death to a private collector with deep pockets. Today it is on prominent display at the Fenimore Art Museum in Cooperstown, New York.

Too bad the rich, written family history that accompanied the club from Diefendorf to MAI never left the building when it was sold, and is now lost. Had the family narrative survived, we would now know where young John King found his wartime memento. Instead, we can only speculate. The possibilities are many, some even unrelated to KPW. Truth told, short of an improbable discovery among papers in some old, dusty desk drawer, the King family tradition is probably forever lost. Sad indeed. Which doesn’t mean we can’t ponder an intriguing possibility brought to my attention by local researcher Howard Clark, a founder of the non-profit Nolumbeka organization dedicated to local Native American preservation and research.

The club has for many years been classified as an Eastern Woodlands artifact, which means it’s from a geographical area east of the Mississippi River, and more specifically in this case, from the territory between the Ohio Valley and the Northeast. That means its origin could have been either Eastern Algonquian or Iroquoian. Given the family tradition that it had been picked up during KPW by a Northampton soldier here in the valley and that the war was between colonial and indigenous New Englanders, it was for years assumed to have been an Eastern Algonquian relic.

Enter author Lars Krutak, who in 2014 featured the club in Tattoo Traditions of Native North America: Ancient and Contemporary Expressions of Identity. In the “Eastern Woodlands” chapter of his work, he identifies its many iconographic carvings as Iroquoian, Seneca, or Mohawk in style, which evokes some interesting possibilities that snugly fit Clark’s theory. Krutak isn’t the only scholar to classify the club’s iconography as Iroquoian. So does Carpenter (1922-2001), who knew Woodland symbols like few others. Relying on the exhaustive notes of iconic American art historian Carl Schuster (1904-1969), Carpenter co-authored the monumental Materials for the Study of Social Symbolism in Ancient & Tribal Art, a three-volume, 12-book, worldwide bible on the subject. Although he never commits to an Iroquoian origin for the club in Chief & Greed, he does indeed identify one of its carved images as a turtle wearing the four-pointed Seneca star. So, he does at the very least lean toward an Iroquoian attribution.

Archaeologist/anthropologist Dr. Richard Michael Gramly knows this four-pointed star and Iroquoian iconography well, and he views Carpenter’s Seneca attribution as narrow.

“That four-pointed star is not Seneca, it’s Iroquoian,” explained Gramly, who knew Carpenter personally, and whose Persimmon Press published the second edition of Chief & Greed. “The star is the symbol of the Turtle Clan and could just as likely have been Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga or Cayuga. Turtle Clan was the clan of Iroquois nobility, a prestigious clan of leaders. It started with the Leni Lenape (Delaware) Tribe. So, let us not forget that there were also Eastern Algonquian Turtle Clans.”

That is not to say that Gramly is challenging Krutak’s conclusion that the overall nature of the club’s carvings suggest an Iroquoian, not Eastern Algonquian, origin. No. Gramly trusts Krutak’s opinion, which by the way conforms with Clark’s suggestion that the club may have entered the Connecticut Valley with the Mohawk prince Saheda, infamously murdered along with his gift-bearing peace delegation in late June of 1664 on their way from Albany to a council with the Pocumtuck Tribe.

Saheda’s delegation never made it to the Pocumtuck Fort in what is now Old Deerfield. Instead, the travelers were ambushed and killed somewhere along the trail – maybe near the well-known, ancient fishing place Salmon Falls (now Shelburne Falls) – by a vengeful band of Sokoki warriors settling a score. Months before that, Mohawks had attacked the Sokoki Fort at Hinsdale, New Hampshire, scattering Sokokis in all directions, including south for temporary refuge at the Pocumtuck Fort. Many historians believe that some of the Sokoki warriors living with Pocumtucks knew of the incoming diplomatic Mohawk party and took the law in their own hands. Perhaps that was how the King club arrived in the valley. Maybe Saheda was carrying it the day he was murdered, and it was taken by a Sokoki warrior who died as an elder 12 years later at the Falls Fight.

This hypothesis seems to be supported by confusing a mention in the New York Colonial Documents (NYCD). Dated July 12, 1664, less than a month after Saheda’s murder, this second-hand report made an intriguing reference that could be related to the Saheda’s club: New York Indians (Mahican?), including one named Cajadogo, met four “Northern savages” traveling west along the Mohawk Trail as they reached the western bank of a river named “Mill Kil” in a canoe. The New York Natives knew of Saheda’s murder and inquired: “How will it be now with the Northern savages, for the Onejages have a knife and a hatchet lying upon their arms.” The Northern “savages” responded that they had only followed through on orders from the English.

Could these Indians have been referring to what later became the King war club, which could easily have been referred to as a hatchet or tomahawk at the time? It’s possible.

Although it is absolutely true that this hypothesis about a cryptic colonial reference could never be proven, it makes a lot of sense and, if true, would add immense historical value to the rare relic. Too bad it wasn’t scrutinized centuries ago by an Indigenous medicine man with a deep understanding of the pre-literate grammar of design. Such a wise man could have deciphered not only the precise meaning of the club’s carved symbolism, but also very likely the owner’s identity.

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2 Responses to War-Club Speculation

  1. No, Dan, I have no access to Bruchac’s PowerPoint and am not quite sure what you’re referencing about the Giant Beaver flooding cornfields b/c the Beaver Myth unfolded about 13,000 years before Three Sisters/corn agriculture found its way to New England/Connecticut Valley. I don’t want to sound like a contrarian, and do respect the scholarship of most recent tellers of the Beaver Myth, which I believe has been embellished. The actual myth was never recorded and never showed up in the written record until the late late 19th century when unreliable white local historians introduced it for the record. We will never learn the deep-history oral beaver tale, a performance that could have taken a Native storyteller many hours or even days to recite in verse and song and dance over winter fires. That tale will never be learned. Sad but true.

  2. Hello Gary,

    Would you know if there is a way to access Marge Bruhac’s presentation. I am releasing a book of poems early March “The Ground We Stand On” relating to origins of Holyoke, MA, and until I saw your article of January 2018 about the hole in the Giant Bever Myth, I thought the Bever got into trouble with the local tribe because its damn flooded their corn fields…So I am interested in what Marge has to say.

    I was born on Nonotuck Street in Holyoke… and so the meaning of that word has guided my path to you!

    Dan Shanahan

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