Old Roads Have Stories To Tell

One never knows where a road will lead them. Especially an old road. So, let’s talk about roads. Old roads. Ones that began as indigenous paths or, before that, game trails carved into Mother Earth’s skin by migrating herds. The discovery potential in such ancient trails is nearly limitless for those who maintain an open mind and harbor a curious spirit.

I learned that roads could tell fascinating stories during my brief days as a young surveyor still searching for my identity. That was back in the late Sixties and early Seventies, when I rose in status to transitman before moving on to other adventures. It all began with summer jobs as a high school and college student, when I learned the skills of a rodman, a job description that may well have changed today with all the new technology. I don’t think surveyors still use plumb bobs and 200-foot chains, standard tools of the trade in my day.

Back then, a good rodman was a valuable commodity. He was a man who knew the woods and understood terrain features valued by mapmakers. Though I didn’t know of any female rodmen when I was cutting line and giving backsights, I’m sure there are many today.

In those days of turning angles on circular Gurley transit scales, the rodman was a laborer who carried a sharp machete to cut sight lanes for the transitman, lugging and pounding in hubs and stakes to identify traverse stations along the perimeter. During detail work with a boldly calibrated 16½-foot rod in hand, the rodman would record contours along with natural and manmade features.

Among the natural features were brooks, springs, swamps, outcroppings of ledge, and distinctive trees. The manmade items include roads, stone walls, cellar holes, old wells, and buildings. All of this information was recorded in field notes and submitted to office draftsmen who drew maps and plans of the surveyed acreage.

Although many of the roads we marked through forested hilltown terrain had been long ago discontinued or abandoned, they needed to be recorded nonetheless. These roads passed through and bordered expansive old New England farms that had been worked by the same families for several generations and were about to go on the market. Remarkably, many of those roads were then and likely still are today fit for travel by four-wheel-drive trucks and recreational vehicles, not to mention navigable by dirt- and mountain-bikers, hikers, hunters and snowmobilers.

Unfortunately, many of the old four-wheel-drive roads I explored as a teen and young man are now sealed off by sturdy, locked metal gates erected to eliminate all but “official” motorized travel by forest stewards and departments.

I guess it was inevitable once recreational rough-riders came onto the scene. They loved to rev their muscle trucks and spin their big, knobby, mud-splattering tires through boggy depressions while displaying total disrespect for private property. The problem was only exacerbated by inconsiderate gangs of four-wheeler enthusiasts who cut fences and new forest trails. Some even disassembled narrow openings in stone walls for their recreational vehicles to pass through. This raised the ire of landowners, and resulted in many road closings.

Carving Deep History

I can’t say I was aware as a young surveyor that some of the old roads I marked on detail duty – even discontinued portions of old county roads that had been rerouted over the years – had originally been Native paths.

I suppose it’s possible that some astute party chief introduced me to the deep-history context of some roads. If so, the memory escapes me. But it most likely never happened. Too esoteric for the average modern surveyor. No, it seems to me that I employed my own idiosyncratic, autodidactic methods to arrive at that profound and exciting discovery that puts a different spin on old roads.

There is now a sophisticated cult of true believers who promote the idea that some stone walls and mysterious stone structures hidden on landscapes predate 16th-century European emigration by a long shot. Although it’s possible some were indeed Indigenous creations, I’ll reserve judgment for now. I need to know more, must see unimpeachable evidence that isn’t based on bare speculation and hypothesis. As old Muskie used to say in the Saturday morning cartoons, “It’s possible,” an assessment that applies to many mysteries.

What brought me to this topic of old roads and antiquities is my recent, perhaps pandemic-driven, probe into the history and settlement of South Deerfield and north Whately. This sliver of the Connecticut Valley is my place and that of my father’s family. We have been here since the colonial beginning – a short time on the deep-history scale – and were led here by 17th-century Indigenous trails, including the so-called Pocumtuck Path.

This local trail, which connected Old Deerfield to Umpanchala’s Fort on the edge of Hatfield, was already thousands of years old when found by my European ancestors. It ran through Hatfield and Whately as we now know them on Straits and Long Plain roads, then traveled right through the heart of South Deerfield on Main Street, and on to Mill Village Road and Old Deerfield through the Bars and South Meadows.

So important was this meandering north-south Native path – on which the Bloody Brook Massacre unfolded on September 18, 1675 – that it was established as the dividing line between the eastern and western layout of the May 20, 1688 Long Hill Division. This land division allotted parcels in the south end of town to 48 Deerfield proprietors. Then, some 70 years later, after years of passing through, the nascent village of Muddy Brook, now South Deerfield, was born.

Underneath it all to this very day, up and down Main Street, is that same Pocumtuck Path, buried under layers of gravel and asphalt.

Furthermore, that main artery was just one tiny segment of a well-defined network of Native trails that served as the foundation of Whately, Conway, Ashfield, and all settlement of Franklin County townships. Though there is little mention of such trails in the public record, they were here when colonials first entered the valley, and they were followed far and wide into the wild, ultimately determining the settlement pattern of our county. I know that was the case near my Greenfield Meadows home, and the same was true of the home I sold in South Deerfield. The dynamic exists throughout the surrounding hills and dales, ridges, and swamps I got to know as an observant and curious hunter passing cellar holes, old mill sites, and abandoned orchards along fading roads buried deep in the forest.

Up Into the Hills

One of my favorite haunts, with or without a gun, has for more than 50 years been the forested acres surrounding Conway State Forest and Henhawk Trail. It’s a broad swath of upland landscape that touches Williamsburg, Whately, and Conway and Ashfield not far away. This mixed forest of splendid hardwood ridges and foreboding hemlock swamps is traversed by many double-rutted roads, barely discernible today.

The best time to find such old roads, often with a small, indiscrete cellar hole or two along them, is after a fresh, shallow snow that reveals their outline. Thus, I most often discovered such roads with gun in hand during deer season. The ones that don’t appear on early maps must have been private roads to secluded upland farms, abandoned long ago for the more fertile Ohio Valley and beyond.

To learn about this local landscape, I used to study pre-1940 topographical maps, which showed the old orchards, pastures, and farms. There and in town histories published at the turn of the 20th century I’d gather information and build a new level of understanding.

In the process, I learned that Henhawk had been an ancient Indian trail leading to Ashfield, the upper Deerfield River Valley, and beyond. During colonial days it had evolved to a cart path, and eventually became a main road for motor cars between Whately, Williamsburg, and Conway that was used into the World War II era.

It made sense. Our hunter-gatherer Native people, before and after they became farmers of corn, beans and squashes, would have carved paths through their sheltered, upland, winter refuges. There they maintained sugar orchards, nut groves, and berry patches which served two important purposes: producing wild food and attracting important game that also valued it as a food source. This network of well-defined upland trails also led colonials to food, water and observation points, and were thus followed by scouts and adventurers who eventually built their first dwellings on home sites requiring minimal clearing.

Under the Pavement

The same was true in early Muddy Brook, now South Deerfield, and likewise in settlements along the periphery. We’re talking about Mill River, along West Mountain, and Pine Nook along the Connecticut River, places also located along well-established Native paths that soon became roads.

The same can be said for East Whately, Whately Center, West Whately, and Indian Hill, where the first roads were all former Native paths – roads like Mount Esther, Grass Hill, Dry Hill, Poplar Hill, Chestnut Plain, and Whately Glen, where Leicester miller Adonijah Taylor was, according to Deerfield town records, working on the road to Conway from his Indian Hill grist and sawmills soon after settling there in 1760s. Take it to the bank that the road he was opening followed the same Native path that had led him to his new home and business.

Deeds seem to indicate that South Deerfield’s Pleasant Street – which today passes the elementary school, and wasn’t connected to North Main Street by a bridge over Bloody Brook until the 1830s – was a Native path, forking west just north of the bridge where Bloody Brook Monument now stands. It also seems more than likely that Elm and Sugarloaf streets had a history as at the very least secondary Native paths from the Connecticut River to the uplands.

Like their long-abandoned upland tributaries traversing hilltown forests, the narrow Native footpaths pressed into the largely wet, fertile bottomlands had been here for thousands of years by the time they were first trekked by colonials. Over time, these paths were widened for horses and horse carts. Later still for motor cars.

So, when passing through downtown South Deerfield today, be aware that those ancient Native paths are underfoot. It’s a deep-history perspective that can take you to places exciting to visit.

We must never forget that from these paths governed by the lay of the land was born a town, a county, a state, a region and, two centuries later, the United States of America – a deep-history perspective that’s easy to get your head around.

It’s too bad the proud, dignified people whose moccasins laid the groundwork were denied a seat in council reinventing their defiled place.

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