Trust Temple On Swamp-Fite Site

In recent years an intense spotlight has focused its beam on the Falls Fight of May 19, 1676 – the bloodiest day in the history of our splendid slice of the Connecticut Valley.
Much federal money has been and will continue to be spent trying to pin down exactly what happened before, during, and after this so-called “battle,” which historians generally identify as the event that turned the tide of King Philip’s War (KPW) in the colonials’ favor. The predawn attack on a sleeping Native fishing camp along the north shore of the falls in what is now Riverside, Gill dealt a severe, unmerciful blow to Native people celebrating nature’s spring bounty.
Hopefully, ongoing “Battlefield Grant” research will, by the time all is said and done, put its definitive stamp on not just the Falls Fight but also the other major local battles leading up to it. If so, the mission will begin with the August 25, 1675 Swamp Fight mentioned in my previous column. The first Connecticut Valley engagement of the war, this morning skirmish unfolded on a sandy-plain site overlooking Hopewell Swamp from the west on Mount Sugarloaf’s southwestern skirt. Following it in rapid succession were the ambushes at Beer Plain (September 2) and Bloody Brook (September 18).
Because the three primary Swamp Fight chroniclers never set foot on the site, including even Hatfield’s own minister, Rev. John Russell, a cloud of uncertainty has hovered over it for more than three centuries. Then, to make matters worse, a self-published book written by a South Hadley author who rode a publicity tour through local historical societies exacerbated the confusion by throwing a bizarre new wrinkle into the public square in 2009.
This author – who five years earlier had written a book about 19th-century Whately pottery – took it upon himself to defy prevailing wisdom by moving some two or three miles west not only the most-traveled 17th-century Native path through our part of the valley, but the long-accepted sites of the Swamp Fight, the Bloody Brook Fight, and even Poplar Spring, a well-known spring that crossed the indigenous trail near today’s intersection of Christian Lane and Long Plain Road in East Whately.
Compounding the confusion, two respected Connecticut Valley historians of the highest order put their stamp of approval in bold black letters on the back cover of the spiral-bound softcover. First, a respected female Forbes Library reference librarian saluted the work as “A ground-breaking piece of research.” Then, a male New England scholar often affiliated with Old Deerfield, now dead, opined that, whether or not one agreed with all of the author’s conclusions, “the sheer volume of early documents and later historical writings consulted with respect to the topographical history of our immediate area here in Deerfield” was impressive.
In defense of the reviewers – both of whom I’ve met and hold in the highest regard – they were reacting to a topic that sat on the periphery of their expertise. Although the reference librarian’s knowledge of Northampton history and Connecticut Valley genealogy is truly remarkable and reliable, she’d be the first to admit she’s not a KPW scholar.
Ditto for the other reviewer, an effete researcher whose bailiwick was early New England architecture, material cultural, and genealogy. He would have been 86 and slowing down when penning the requested review.
The three 17th-century historians to document the Swamp Fight were Rev. William Hubbard (1621-1704) of Ipswich, Rev. Increase Mather (1639-1723) of Boston, and the aforementioned Rev. Russell (1626-1692) of infant Hadley. All three of these learned men relied on second- and third-hand reports to come to agreement that this inaugural battle took place at a site above Hatfield village near Sugar Loaf Hill.
Later, the consensus among devoted 19th- and 20th-century Connecticut Valley historians was that the battlefield sat about a quarter-mile south of Sugarloaf Brook. There a steep, triangular ravine juts out into the plain, pulling a trickling spring into the swamp.
This ravine was identified as the site from which Native warriors ignited the skirmish by firing the first shots at pursuing English soldiers. That opening salvo pulled the soldiers into pursuit through the swamp, where a tree-to-tree skulking battle continued for three hours, resulting in the death of nine English and an estimated 26 Native warriors. It’s likely that Native rear scouts kept track of their pursuers’ progress and, losing ground, set up an ambush to give women, children, and elderly a chance to escape.
Leading the English troopers in pursuit of the Natives were Captains Richard Beers and Thomas Lathrop. The Natives were fleeing to save their firearms, which were to be confiscated. Beers and Lathrop would soon die in similar ambushes – Beers in Northfield (September 2) and Lathrop at Bloody Brook (September 18).
Among the English killed at the Swamp Fight were Richard Fellows of Hatfield, Azariah Dickinson of Hadley, and Samuel Mason of Northampton. Relatives and descendants of the fallen and those who lived to tell about it, as well as family and friends of Bloody Brook Battle participants, would surely have known the battle sites. Not only that, but you can safely assume they pointed them out in passing. Battlegrounds where family and friends, neighbors and parishioners lose their lives are not forgotten in the collective memory.
Which brings us to Rev. J.H. Temple of Whately, who wrote the first History of Whately in 1872 and placed the starting point of the Swamp Fight on J.C. Sanderson’s land a short distance west of his River Road homestead, where today the J.M. Pasiecnik Farm Stand and 5J Creamee stands.
Temple was so certain he had the site pegged that he hired an Ashfield artist to grace his book’s frontispiece with a sketch looking up the ravine from which the first shots were fired. Clearly, he harbored no doubts about the spot, and he had good reason for his confidence. His information was gathered information from aged members of his congregation who dated back to the days before Whately split off from Hatfield in 1771. Some of those sources would have had grandparents who knew King Philip’s War veterans.
Temple published his book at a time when Franklin County was abuzz with historical curiosity about its KPW battle sites, and roadside monuments were being erected to mark them by the side of roads. This community project was perpetuated by Old Deerfield antiquarian George Sheldon, best known as the author of the History of Deerfield (1895). Sheldon fueled a local-history renaissance during the final third of the 19th century by founding the Pocumtuck Valley Memorial Association (PVMA) after the Civil War. The PVMA assembled a cadre of like minds and stirred public interest with a steady stream of historical and genealogical data printed in the Greenfield and Turners Falls newspapers.
Myself, I rely on family tradition to buttress my confidence that the Swamp Fight unfolded where Sheldon, Temple, and the vast majority of historians before and after them say it did. My great-grandfather, Willis Sanderson, was born and lived next door to his grandfather, aforementioned J.C. Sanderson, for the first 16 years of his life. So, he would have worked and played on the contiguous farm acreage surrounding Hopewell Swamp.
I learned of a mysterious battle before Bloody Brook from my great-aunt Gladys (1895-1989), Willis’ daughter, who in conversation about Bloody Brook would note “a lesser-known battle occurring a few weeks before Bloody Brook on Father’s farm.” I don’t think she even knew its name. Gladys was my grandfather’s spinster sister. We called her “Antie,” and like many other unmarried women of old New England families, she was the unofficial keeper of family records, photos and memories.
“Antie” had deep roots in South Deerfield. Her grandmother was a member of the Arms family that was among the first settlers there in the late 18th century. In the village first called Bloody Brook, Arms homes were clustered around the Bloody Brook Monument before and after it was erected in 1838. So, you can take it to the bank that Bloody Brook and KPW was a common topic of conversation in her household. The monument stood but a couple hundred yards east of the home where “Antie” was born and died. Her Arms kin were even closer, situated right on the Bloody Brook battlefield, where my widowed mother still lives.
Too bad I took a focused interest in the local KPW battlefields after “Antie” died. It was her Woodruff family Bible, with handwritten names filling in the genealogy page at the front, that nudged me toward further genealogical and local-history research. Oh, how I’d love to speak to “Antie” today about a whole host of topics dear to me.
But isn’t that the way it seems to go? Always a day late and a dollar short. Woulda, coulda, shoulda. The way it is.
So, sorry, fellas, but I can’t buy the 2009, loose-leafed, spiral-bound softcover’s hypotheses surrounding Bloody Brook and King Philip’s War. I believe Temple and Sheldon and, most of all, my own family’s oral tradition.
I have blood in the game: family lore based on collective memory. How can you beat that?

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