02/18/2007

The mystery of the mounds

By: JOSEPH B. NADEAU , Staff Writer

 

The discovery of stone walls and piles deep in the North Smithfield woods fuels speculation that this land holds the remains of Indian warriors

NORTH SMITHFIELD - There has been plenty of talk in town over the years about a long ago battle of the King Philip's War that is said to have occurred near the Nipsachuck Swamp.

The 1675 fight involved King Philip himself and a group of his Wampanoag warriors as they fled a detachment of colonial troops and Indian allies lead by Benjamin Church out of Rehoboth.

A number of King Philip's warriors were killed when surprised by the colonists after spending a night encamped near a large swamp in what is today northern Rhode Island.

The story has been told in a number of histories about the colonial era conflict that ultimately ended the power of Indian tribes in the region, although its site has never been pinpointed with a known landmark.

Now members of the local Conservation Commission and area historians think they have found a potential burial ground that may have ties to that fight.

It is a site containing a number of stone piles surrounded by stone walls on three sides and lies next to the proposed 122-unit Rankin Estates housing development between Route 7 and Rankin Path.

The local Planning Board is reviewing the housing development proposal and has already asked that an archaeological survey be conducted in the long undeveloped section of town to see what historic features it might hold.

But Donald Gagnon, chairman of the Conservation Commission, said the walk he and other members of the panel took through the woods off Route 7 last week has him thinking more immediate action may be needed to preserve what could be a key site from that long ago Indian-Colonial conflict.

"It's got to be an Indian burial ground," Gagnon said of the find. "We've got burial mounds protected by a stonewall," he said.

"We think these are 23 graves from the warriors that died," he said.

Edna Kent, a local historian from Glocester, also visited the site and agrees with Gagnon's contention that the location has ties to the 17th century Indian-Colonial war.

A member of the Rhode Island Advisory Commission on Historic Cemeteries, Kent said what she saw at the site appears in keeping with burials Native Americans would have completed while preparing to leave an area after a battle.

"This is the place, no question about it," she said. The stone mounds are surrounded by a U-shaped wall structure that Kent believes the Wampagnoag or Nipmuc tribes living in the area might have erected either immediately following the battle or at a later point.

The site's proximity to what is long believed to be the historic Nipsachuck Swamp and the fact the section of town still holds the Indian name supports the theory of a connection to the long ago conflict, Kent maintained.

"Why wouldn't it be this," she said. "There is nothing else left to mark the spot of the battle of Nipsachuck."

Like Gagnon, Kent believes the site needs to be preserved with at the very least a designation as a historic Rhode Island cemetery.

If, in fact, the area proves to be an Indian burial ground, Kent believes it should be respected in its present state and left as a monument to a way of life that once existed in Rhode Island.

Nothing else remains to tell the Native American experience of King Philip's War, she said.

"The Indians wrote their history on the land. They left their history in these stone mounds and the beaten paths that go through the woods," she said.

THE CONSERVATION COMMISSION had been planning to take a walk through the area in light of the town's ongoing review of the proposed Rankin Estates housing development and had earlier explored a section of the 264-acre property known as Rankin Village, Gagnon said.

Rankin Village was a shantytown of sorts in the remote area of town during the 18th century and site of possible whiskey stills and bootlegging, according to Gagnon. The village was apparently burned down at some point and only the outlines of basement holes, the remains of chimneys and what appear to be burying grounds marked with head and foot stones remain of the habitation.

The area has also seen farming use over the years and has been logged on occasion.

The new discovery of the suspected Indian burial ground is located close to Route 7 and near the top of a rising section of land, according Gagnon.

The area is not on the Rankin Estates parcel itself but next door on another property owner's land, he said.

The area of stone mounds is surrounded by a stone-built wall on three sides and running about 400 feet in each direction around the mounds.

It is the U-shape of the surrounding walls that led Conservation Commission member Michael Rapko to suspect the area is not the result of local farming practices often applied as an explanation for piles of stones in now wooded areas once used as farm fields.

The mounds themselves seem to have some thought behind the way the stones were placed and do not appear to be random collections of fieldstone, he said. They also appear to have been surround by the wall to protect them or highlight their existence.

"They make you wonder if this is where a person was killed
and they were just covered in stones," he said.

Benjamin Church, the colonial militiaman, is reported to have killed 23 of King Philip's warriors after a long chase across most of Swansea and a crossing of the Seekonk River to continue up along the western side of the Blackstone River.

Phillip, also known as Metacom, was the son of Massasoit, the Wampanoag sachem who had befriended the Pilgrims at Plymouth in the 1620s. By the time of his rule, Philip had become disenchanted with the ever-increasing demands of the colonists and sought to unify other tribes as a counter to their growing power.

Kent said the battle at Nipsachuck is significant in that it was a major move for the colonists of the time to assert their power in their new land.

"When I look at it, I see it as an important piece of our natural heritage. It was the beginning of the ascendancy of the government we have today," she said.

That, of course, came at the expense of King Philip and other Native Americans of the area in the 1670s, according to Kent. Philip would escape the Nipsachuck fight and go on to lead an alliance of tribes against the colonists while wreaking havoc across New England during the war, but was ultimately killed when he returned to his home in Mount Hope.

The war locally also left the landmark known as Nine Men's Misery at the old Monastery property in Cumberland, where Native Americans killed nine colonists captured during a battle with troops led by Capt. Michael Pierce near the Blackstone River. A memorial to the colonial dead can be found at the end of the walking path into the woods behind the Cumberland town library at the town-owned property today.

Kent said her interest in Nipsachuck was revived this winter when she received a copy of Nathaniel Philbrick's book "Mayflower" over the holidays and found in its pages his detailed retelling of the events of the Nipsachuck Swamp Fight in July and August of 1675.

Kent is a descendant of a Mayflower family, the Howlands, a fact giving her added interest in Philbrick's work. She describes the book as well researched and well told. "It is amazing what went on in these times," she said.

Philbrick's work has King Philip leading a band of several hundred people, his warriors, women and children of his tribe as well as his sister-in-law Weetamoo and members of her band into the Nipsachuck Swamp. The battle occurring on the morning of Aug. 1, 1675 was said to have killed his bravest warrior, Nimrod, and set the survivors to hiding in the swamp while waiting to flee the area.

Origin of stone piles and walls remain a mystery

While suspected by the Conservation Commission members and Kent to be connected to King Philip's War, the stone piles and stone walls remain a mystery at best for the moment.

The Blunders property on the other side of Route 7 is also suspected to have had a role in the battle and also has stone piles in some areas. Sections of that site were set aside as open space as part of the town's approval of a housing development plan for the property.

Town Planner Michael Phillips said he heard of the Conservation Commission theories about the new burial ground this week but is still awaiting the start of an archaeological survey requested by the Planning Board to determine what significant historical assets might be located in the proposed Rankin Estates development area.

Stone mounds have been found at the property in the past and prompted a less in depth check that found the soil under the sampled stone pile to be undisturbed, according to Phillips.

A full-fledged survey would take a more detailed look at the area and examine any potential stone structures as well as the remains of past habitation, he noted.

"They would have to look at those sites, categorize them and identify what they are," Phillips said.

The survey could also determine the overall use of the area by native peoples whether that is from colonial times for
even thousands of years earlier, according Phillips.

The topography of the land at the site has been largely untouched since melting glaciers left berms of sand and gravel known as eskers as its high points around the wetlands and streams still found there.

"That is what one of these archaeological surveys will do," Phillips said. "It will allow them to set up a grid pattern and see if they find any evidence of past human use," he said.

The state Historical Preservation and Heritage Commission also looked into the significance of the Rankin Estates property back in 2001 at the request of the local Planning Board, and included the findings of the limited survey of stone piles in its report to the town.

While not finding evidence of human burials at the time, Edward F. Sanderson, commission executive director, said his agency also indicated that the work did not fulfill the agency's recommendation that a full survey be conducted of the entire 264-acre parcel.

Sanderson said his agency recently sent the Planning Board an update of that finding which repeated the recommendation for a full survey.

Were actual burial sites to be found during the survey, the town would gain authority in overseeing the site's designation as a historic cemetery and future preservation or a possible relocation out of the development area if needed, he said.

That process would only begin if actual human remains were to be found, he added. There have been other discoveries of stone piles in the state that were determined to be from farming practices and there have been contentions raised by groups such as the Narragansett Indian Tribe that such locations were from burials, he said.

"In order to determine if something is a burial, you need to do a subsurface archaeological survey," he said. After a period of more than 300 years, the chances of finding actual remains could be remote at best, according to Sanderson.

If remains were to be found, the next step could be determined by the owner's intended use of the land, he said.

"If it is private land and no one plans to disturb the burial site, probably nothing happens," he said.


WHILE HE HAS visited the Nipsachuck area in the past while looking into historic features found at the Blunders property, Paul Robinson, principal state archaeologist, said Thursday that he would like to take another tour through the area given the Conservation Commission's recent findings.

King Philip's War was a major conflict in New England's history and locating a battle site from the period would be a significant discovery, he said."If we could figure out where that was, it would be really important to the history of the state," he said.

There are written records from the colonial participants that can help in determining what actually occurred in the area, Robinson noted, as well as physical evidence that might be uncovered through the survey.

In addition to the skirmish involving King Philip in 1675, a second fight between colonists and Indians is believed to have occurred in the area of Nipsachuck, that one resulting from a Connecticut contingent of soldiers under Capt. John Talcott intercepting a group of Narragansetts on their way to surrender in Boston.

The Narragansetts' Sachem, Matantuck, and many of her followers are believed to have been killed by Talcott in the area of the Nipsachuck Swamp, according to historic records, Robinson said.

The Narragansett Tribe's historian, Doug Harris, has also been interested in Nipsachuck and done work to investigate its connections to past events as well, Robinson said.
Harris could not be reached about the recent discoveries off Route 7, but Robinson and Kent both said they believed tribal members would want to visit the location given its potential historic significance.

The Conservation Commission members and Kent feel that at the very least, some plan will need to be worked out with the owner to have the site designated as a historic burial ground and protected against future development.

There could also be other, not yet identified areas of the parcel proposed for development that also should be studied for possible protection, Rapko said.

"I'd hate to see them get bulldozed under so that you lose some important historical assets of the community," he said. "We will have to work with developers to have them preserved," Rapko said.