Constant Bliss Ambush

Gray, rainy, spring morning. Woodstove idle. Cool indoors. Still writing in my comfy winter kitchen nook.

I’m thinking about colonial New England soldier Constant Bliss, who, by chance, popped into view during recent local-history meanderings.

What a name, huh? Constant Bliss. Something to stive for. Perpetual joy. Very un-Puritanical.

Born to Reverend John and Anna Bliss in 1715, Constant hailed from Hebron, a small central-Connecticut town southeast of Hartford and below Manchester. Stationed in his 31st year as a Deerfield sentry under the command of a man recorded only as “Capt. Holson” on the fateful day of August 22, 1746, Bliss and nine comrades marched for Coleraine. (Note the obsolete spelling.) If there were horses involved, none are mentioned in published accounts.

The ongoing French and Indian War was aflame, and the times had taken a perilous turn for the English in this neck of the woods. Northern Indians from the Lake Champlain corridor – many of them carrying proud Connecticut Valley roots from between Springfield and Northfield – were on the warpath.

Yet the Connecticut soldiers were totally unaware that just two days earlier, in what is today North Adams, Deerfield favorite son John Hawks, vastly outnumbered by some 750 French and Indian attackers, had been forced to surrender Fort Massachusetts. Those on the northward march also had no clue that danger awaited where their trail would begin its upland ascent.

Historians don’t specify the precise marching orders for Bliss’ small party, but the destination was most likely Fort Morrison, also known as North Fort. Standing tall and strong in the northern part of the isolated colonial town, just below today’s Vermont line, Morrison was the most formidable of four Colrain strongholds. The other three all stood in East Colrain: Fort Morris, or South Fort, on the hill across the road from today’s Pine Hill Orchards store, and Fort Lucas and Fort McDowell, the fortified houses of Andrew Lucas and Reverend Alexander McDowell, nearer to the Chandler Hill Burial Ground.

Though the troop was undoubtedly sent to make sure all was well in Colrain, that we can only speculate. Documentary evidence, if there ever was any, apparently vanished long ago. Does it really matter now? No. They were soldiers doing what soldiers do.

What delivered me to this inquiry was a map I recently viewed that traces the soldiers’ path that day to within an underhand stone’s throw of my upper Greenfield Meadows home.

I discovered this interesting, hand-annotated, pullout map of Greenfield tucked into a rare Massachusetts Society of Colonial Wars pamphlet celebrating the dedication of a Greenfield monument to Capt. William Turner of King Philip’s War fame. This little paperback book, titled Capt. William Turner and the “Falls Fight,” May 19, 1676, was handed out at the July 26, 1905 ceremony memorializing a new stone salute to Turner and his fallen comrades.

The “Turner Monument” gala was a grand affair, brass bands and all, unfolding at the now largely forgotten North Parish Church Square at Nash’s Mills, which along with its tranquil pond enjoyed by many was removed to make way for Interstate 91 in the early 1960s. At that time the monument was also moved, down the hill and across Green River, to its current location beside Nash’s Mill Road below the outflow of the so-called “Greenfield Pool.”

As it turns out, the monument’s current placement is actually closer to the spot where Indians killed the fleeing Turner, as he crossed the Green River below the waterfalls cascading to Mill Brook’s mouth.

Though the creator of the pamphlet map goes unnamed, it’s a good bet contemporaneous local historians George Sheldon of Deerfield and Francis M. Thompson of Greenfield had a dominant hand in it, as well as the publication’s other fold-out map of “Nash’s Mills.” The two friends and Pocumtuck Valley Memorial Association colleagues were repeatedly identified in the local press as leading voices behind the Turner commemoration. Their correspondence, housed at Deerfield’s Memorial Libraries, also clearly establishes a strong promotional relationship.

One annotated “X” on the Greenfield map immediately pulled me in. Not more than a quarter-mile above my house, the note accompanying it reads “Constance Bliss killed by Indians August 22, 1756.”

First of all, disregard the mistaken year – a very understandable transcription error. A few inches to the right of this marker lies another “X,” marking a later deadly neighborhood Indian skirmish known as the Country Farms attack, which claimed the lives of townsmen Shubal Atherton and Daniel Graves. This tragic event in Greenfield lore occurred on August 23, 1756, ten years and a day after the Bliss killing. Whoever wrote it was stuck on 1756.

As for the pamphlet’s spelling of Bliss’ first name – Constance – Sheldon and Thompson just had it wrong. Sheldon probably lifted it from 18th-century Deerfield records, and Thompson copied his spelling. Remember, Bliss was a transient soldier stationed only briefly in Deerfield. An outsider. Thus, the confusion. Historians in Sheldon and Thompson’s day didn’t have the luxury of and other online sources, which consistently use the gender-appropriate spelling – Constant – in birth, death, and probate records.

Bliss was the lone ambush casualty that dreadful day. Personal knowledge, which I’ll get into, tells me he was killed and scalped at a predictable site where the ancient Indian trail tilts uphill to Colrain. Although his nine companions aren’t named, one of them was presumably Capt. Holson.

Historians trust that the survivors escaped to Colrain – an assumption likely based on the fact that Colrain was closer than Deerfield. Terrain Navigator measurements bear this out. The closest Colrain bastion, Fort Lucas, was nearly four direct, wooded miles from the ambush site, while Deerfield was nearly six miles away on flatter, more exposed terrain.

The reason I call the upper Meadows site “predictable” for this ambush is that it’s located near three active springs, which still run pure today. Better still, the one closest to the ambush “X” came equipped with an ancient permanent trailside mortar, hollowed into sturdy ledge and used for millennia to grind nuts into gruel grain.

The mortar was there for good reason. Early records note a prolific butternut grove just north of my property during the colonial period, and there are still many butternut, walnut, and other edible-nut trees standing in the neighborhood and surrounding hills. That includes two huge black walnut trees in neighbors’ yards. Walnuts, butternuts, and white-oak acorns were among our indigenous people’s most valued nuts.

Some, if not all, of the Indians who killed Bliss also participated in a sneak attack three days later in what is known in Deerfield lore as the Bars Fight, also memorialized by a stone near Stillwater. By the time the dust had settled on August 25, 1746, five colonists were dead, one miraculously survived a fractured skull, and young Samuel Allen, 9, had been taken captive.

Sheldon identified those attackers as “St. Francis Indians,” and gets even more specific by calling one of them a Scatacook. Both designations suggest the strong possibility that some of the assailants had deep roots here and knew the old trails through community memory and elder guidance.

As for the trailside mortar stone in the woods behind my house, I have not seen it with my own eyes – just learned of it in independent conversation with two neighbors who had. One of my sources is a friend five years older than me. The other, older than my parents and long dead, would be well over 100 today.

Both men last visited the mortar stone more than a half-century ago. They agreed it was about knee- to hip-high, near a spring on the perimeter of an old orchard long ago choked off by reforestation.

Had I learned of this ancient indigenous site during my first 15 years of Meadows residence, I undoubtedly would have forced myself to find it during deer-hunting diversions. Although I no longer hunt deer, I did search for the stone once, maybe five years ago, with an archaeologist friend. When our search came up empty and I described the unsuccessful mission to my surviving source, he suspected we had focused too far south.

Oh well, I guess I’ll now have to take another poke at finding it. I’ll begin where the spring meets the road and scour both sides. Hopefully, the lay of the land and outcroppings will offer helpful hints.

So, stay tuned. I may return with a photo.

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