Sugarloaf Beaver Tale All Began In 1871 With Phinehas Field And The PVMA

A venerable, solemn Phinehas Field is displayed in the formal, sketched portrait accompanying his online Find A Grave profile.

A man who volunteered for Civil War service after his 60th birthday, Field had, by the time of this formal portrait, served many years as deacon of the Charlemont Congregational Church and lived a distinguished, pious life. Phinehas Field had much to be proud of.

Born 1799 and raised in Northfield, he died at 85 in Charlemont in 1884. Undoubtedly an outspoken Lincolnian Republican, Field’s tall, mushroom-capped gravestone stands in East Charlemont’s Leavitt Cemetery, situated along the Mohawk Trail on the western skirt of Charlemont Academy. It’s a fitting final resting place for the man who, in 1831, married Chloe Maxwell Leavitt, granddaughter of Charlemont’s conservative minister Rev. Jonathan Leavitt, whose palatial, Georgian-colonial home – The Manse – still stands along a discontinued dirt road 1.5 miles north of Field’s grave. (Rumor has it that Charlemont’s Revolutionary patriots were so determined to be rid of their pacifist minister that they made sure his property was set off with Heath in 1785. And there it stands today, along the border, in Heath.)

Not only was Chloe Maxwell Leavitt Field’s grandfather a minister. Her uncle was prestigious Greenfield lawyer, judge and state senator Jonathan Leavitt, whose sprawling Federal home still stands in downtown Greenfield. There it has for decades served as the Greenfield Public Library. Two of Jonathan Jr.’s brothers were also prominent Greenfield residents.

Though it could be said that Phinehas Field married well, that is not to suggest that he married up. No, he surely would have begged to differ with any such claim. Field came from his own proud New England heritage. Of royal Connecticut Valley cloth, the Fields have since the beginning been scattered up and down the fertile river basin.

Progenitor Zachariah Field is found among the 161 names cut in stone on the Hartford Founders Monument. An early arrival to Boston in 1629, he settled in Dorchester before joining Rev. Thomas Hooker’s famous 1636 overland migration to Hartford, where he became an original proprietor (1639) after fighting in the Pequot War (1637). By 1659, the restless Field had removed to nascent Northampton. Then, in 1662, he moved a few miles north to infant Hatfield, where he died four years later.

According to genealogist Timothy Lester Jacobs of the Society of the Descendants of the Founders of Hartford, “Zachery” Field was engaged as a Northampton and Hatfield resident “in mercantile business, and had a large trade with the Indians.” A pioneer in the true sense of the word, he didn’t live long enough to see Hatfield split off from Hadley and gain township in 1670.

The pioneer flame burned just as brightly among Zachery Field’s descendants, many of them Indian fighters and ground-breakers for early towns like Deerfield, Northfield and Sunderland. Zachariah’s son, Sgt. Samuel Field, survived the Falls Fight of May 19, 1676 only to be slain and scalped by Indians while working on his Hatfield farm 21 years later, on June 24, 1697.

Samuel represented the first of many Fields or Field spouses to be either killed or captured by Indians, including many during the famous February 29, 1704 French and Indian sacking of Deerfield. It didn’t stop there. Members of the Field family were still involved in the fight right up through February 1763, when the long string of French and Indian Wars finally ended with the Treaty of Paris signing.

Phinehas Field was no stranger to colonial family valor. In fact, he wore it on his sleeve. When introduced to the Pocumtuck Valley Memorial Association by founder and president George Sheldon at the group’s second annual meeting in 1871, Field stood to introduce himself by highlighting his ancestors’ military acumen. He could go on and on.

His father, also Phinehas, was a Revolutionary soldier; grandfather Moses had fought in the French and Indian War; great-grandfather Ebenezer had been mistaken for an Indian, shot and killed by a Northfield sentry; and his previously mentioned second great-grandfather Samuel was a King Philip’s War vet.

He failed to mention progenitor Zachariah Field’s Pequot War service and, curiously, his own direct and peripheral family connections to Deerfield’s infamous 1704 attack. You’d think his family’s Deerfield misfortunes would have been front and center around PVMA gatherings.

So, why, you ask, should we be interested in Phinehas Field? What was his claim to fame?

Well, it just so happens that Mr. Field is the man who brought to light the Native American Great Beaver Tale explaining the origin of Deerfield’s Pocumtuck Range. President Sheldon had in the early days of his organization implored his “antiquarian” colleagues to record important local history by writing it down for posterity before it vanished in thin air, never again to see the light of day. That was how the ancient, indigenous Beaver Tale was brought into white Connecticut Valley culture. Field introduced it in 1871, and 19 years later it was published in the PVMA’s first volume of its History and Proceedings.

Here it is in full, as published by PVMA in 1890:


“The Great Beaver,

Whose pond flowed over the whole basin north of Mt. Tom, made havoc among the fish and when these failed he would come ashore and devour Indians. A pow-wow was held and Hobomock raised, who came to their relief. With a great stake in hand, he waded the river until he found the beaver, and so hotly chased him that he sought to escape by digging into the ground. Hobomock saw his plan and his whereabouts, and with his great stake jammed the beaver’s head off. The earth over the beaver’s head we call Sugarloaf, the body lies just north of it.”


So, there you have it, short and sweet as beaver-tail delicacy, and sorely lacking much important detail – such as the composition of the landform beaver’s body. Field identifies the head and nothing else, leaving the rest of the beaver’s anatomy to the imagination, and, yes, there have been inconsistencies about the beaver’s makeup ever since.

Though I have not seen it, Field’s tale likely found its way into the Greenfield Gazette and Courier before it made its way into History and Proceedings. Why? Because PVMA founder George Sheldon was a prolific contributor to the Greenfield paper and also the smaller Turners Falls Reporter. In those local papers he tested out the narrative of what would become his acclaimed History of Deerfield in the years leading up to its 1895 publication.

It should come as no surprise that Sheldon had embellished Field’s vague beaver tale by the time it was published in his History of Deerfield. Field’s skeletal tale needed a little meat on its bones.

So, the Deerfield antiquarian wrote that “Hobomok was offended” by the beaver’s “depredations” and was “determined to kill it,” not with a great stake but rather an “enormous oak” employed as a club. Dispatched by a blow to the neck, the giant beaver sank to the bottom of [Lake Hitchcock] and “turned to stone.”

Sheldon was also more precise in describing the beaver carcass left on the landscape for all to see. He wrote that the view from West Mountain displayed: “Wequamps the head, north of which the bent neck shows where fell the fatal stroke; North Sugarloaf the shoulders, rising to Pocumtuck Rock the back, whence it tapers off to the tail at Cheapside.”

Not to be outdone, along came Montague historian Edward P. Pressey, who, 15 years later, with a different spelling for the transformer character, took his own stab at Field’s and Sheldon’s beaver tale in his History of Montague, published in 1910.

According to Pressey, the Great Beaver preyed upon fish and, when food became scarce, took to eating men of the river villages. “Hobmock, a benevolent spirit giant,” was called upon to “relieve the stressed people, and that he did by chasing the troublesome beast “into the immense lake… and flinging great handfuls of dirt and rock” at it. Finally, the beast, overburdened with what had been throw upon it, sank in the middle of the lake, where “Hobmock dispatched the monster by a blow with his club on the back” of its neck, and “there he lies to this day. The upturned head covered with dirt is the sandstone cliff of Wequamps (Mt. Sugar Loaf) and the body is the northward range.”

Notice how, unlike Sheldon, Pressey is vague in defining the mountainous beaver carcass – a wise move on his part. After Field’s original story left the carcass totally open to the imagination, Sheldon exercised poetic license to provide an anatomically incorrect description. A beaver profile has but three components: a head, a body, and a flat tail. Sheldon’s model is composed of four segments – a head, shoulders, body and tail, not right no matter how you twist it.

Pressey did, however, exercise poetic license of his own by introducing the concept of Hobomock bombarding the beaver with “handfuls of dirt and rock.” That novel concept was most likely borowed from a Nova Scotia beaver myth published in Charles Godfrey Leland’s Algonquin Legends of New England (1884). Godfrey;s tale relied mostly on the then unpublished manuscript of Baptist missionary Silas Tertius Rand (1810-1889), who lived with and studied the Micmacs for 40 years and whose Legends of the Micmac was posthumously published in 1893.

A major problem with all three early historians’ tales is that beavers are herbivores, and thus do not eat meat. None. Zippo. Not men or mammals, fish or frogs, snakes or salamanders, ducks or geese. Nothing of the like. Beavers eat inner bark and twigs, leaves and roots. Plant food, not meat – a fact Native Americans would obviously have known. Still, there are other Native American myths that involve the killing of vicious or unruly beavers, so the man-eating twist was probably a colonial misinterpretation.

Something important to remember is that Field was not an anthropologist or ethnologist. He was a devout Christian, and very like a man who subscribed to the late 19th century, racist sentiment opining that “the only good Indian was a dead Indian.” So, he wasn’t recording the indigenous tale he heard in childhood out of cultural respect. Quite the contrary, he likely thought the whole concept was ridiculous, an silly tale from primitive, Stone Age people.

Oh my, how times change. Now Native American Literature – the study of oral history captured on wax cylinders – is under a finely-tuned scholarly microscope.

Field, Sheldon, and Pressey were from another time and mindset, and their published work stood as the accepted Sugarloaf Beaver Myth until the turn of the 21st century. These days, a pair of scholars with Abenaki roots have come forward to put their own spin on what they call The Great Beaver. Finally, the tale viewed through an indigenous lens is being explored and developed.

In my next column, we’ll take a look at how the Sugarloaf Beaver Myth has evolved since Marge Bruchac and Lisa Brooks have taken control of it. Now, they own it… and go to great lengths to protect it.

Stay tuned.


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