Wednesday, May 06, 2015

Revisiting Pocumtuck History in Deerfield

George Sheldon’s Vanishing Indian Act
Historical Journal of Massachusetts, Vol. 39 (1 & 2), Summer 2011
© Institute for Massachusetts Studies, Westfield State University

“The Pocumtuck Valley Memorial Association was established in 1870 as a means to preserve “memorials, books, papers and relics” that would “illustrate and perpetuate the history of the early settlers, and of the race which vanished before them.” The founders, including George Sheldon, used Deerfield Academy’s original building as a location for Memorial Hall Museum, which opened in 1880. Although Sheldon promoted Memorial Hall Museum as a place where Pocumtuck and English history would intersect, there was no space dedicated to living Indians…

…Sheldon also eagerly pursued amateur excavations of the Pocumtuck dead. Dozens of Native burial sites, wigwam circles, old planting fields, former storage pits, and even the Pocumtuck fort site, were located within the bounds of the town of Deerfield. Epaphrus Hoyt identified the Pocumtuck fort site atop the Pocumtuck Range as a locale where “a great variety of rude Indian implements, as well as bones, have there been found.” Skeletal remains had also been found at Bars Long Hill, at John Broughton’s Hill, and at “an Indian burying place west of the ‘Old Street burying ground.’” Sheldon saw these physical remains as material proof of Indian extinction: “In connection with the indications of abode . . . fragments of weapons and utensils can always be found. With these proofs about him the close observer can say with confidence, here dwelt the red man; here stood his fort, here lay his cornfield, and standing on a selected spot he can add, underneath my feet lie his mouldering remains.”

In an 1886 essay for the Greenfield Gazette & Courier titled “Relics of the Departed Race,” Sheldon described some of his finds. Although he viewed Native human remains as abandoned relics, it is notable that these burial sites were not haphazard; they illustrated the kinds of careful interments done by living relatives. In addition, they clearly dated no earlier than the 1600s, since the personal adornments and funerary possessions included a mix of Native and non-Native goods, from shell wampum to glass trade beads:

“In one grave there was found what appeared to be the remains of a basket . . . In another, that of a child, was a stone figure, about four inches long, perhaps representing a fish or serpent…”

George Sheldon, I believe, willfully misrepresented the dense documentation of Pocumtuck and Nonotuck strategy and resistance. He ignored the flexibility of Algonkian Indian identity and failed to recognize that a shift in residence did not automatically erase indigenous ancestry. During the 1600s, as they had for millennia, Native people living in the middle Connecticut River valley employed seasonal travels, fluid kinship networks, and flexible alliances. These activities both confused and transgressed colonial social and political boundaries. The absorption of Pocumtuck people into the Schaghticoke and Abenaki populations was not a mysterious diaspora to a foreign country; people simply followed familiar paths to live among their cousins and allies..."

J. Kehaulani Kauanui interviews Dr. Marge Bruchac (Abenaki), a scholar whose research focuses on the historical erasure and cultural recovery:

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