Anthropologist and researcher Howard Clark narrates the historical realities behind the 1676 Turners Falls Massacre. Quoted here in its entirety, you may read the original “My Turn” column in the Greenfield Recorder here.
History is not a random series of events. If you follow the colonial players and their interconnections through marriage or business ventures, you will see that their agendas, be it land speculation or the slave trade, are the driving forces that will explain the events.
Capt. William Turner was no hero, but a pawn. Gov. John Leverett of Massachusetts Bay Company, released him from prison over the objections of religious leaders, so he owed him a favor which will be clear later. Turner’s chaplain the day of the massacre was Hope Atherton, son of Humphrey Atherton. Humphrey and William served on the same Dorchester town board in 1652. Humphrey was given 700 acres of land in the Connecticut Valley for his services against the Narragansett’s and made magistrate of the Hampton Court in 1659. That same year, he created the Atherton Mortgage Company along with Gov. John Winthrop Jr. of Connecticut, Gov. Josh Winslow of Plymouth Colony and other people of wealth and power including military leaders (all land speculators).
Gov. Winthrop fined the Narragansett Tribe on questionable charges. In order to pay the fine, the Atherton Company loaned money to the tribe and when they tried to pay back the loan on time, the payment was rejected.
When the Royal Commission from England came over in 1665, after the fall of the Dutch territory now known as New York, they reviewed the Massachusetts laws on acquiring Indian lands and the Narragansett complaints. The commission re-wrote the laws to express Indian land could only be acquired through purchase or given by the Indians, and tore up the Atherton mortgage. Humphrey had died prior to this action but its remaining partners held a grudge.
Over time they devised a back door to the law by calling for “Just War,” which gave the colonies the right to pre-emptive strike by declaring they felt threatened. John Hull, another land speculator with connections to the valley used his own financial resources to purchase muskets and other munitions from England for the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1673 (two years prior to the war). He would become the war treasurer and convert one of his ships, “The Sea Flower,” into a slave ship to recoup some of his cost and was put in charge of the disposition of Indian captives that were brought into Boston.
Upon his death in 1683, the colony owed him between 1,500 to 6,000 pounds. There were others of wealth and power who also purchased muskets and munitions in large amounts with their own money for the colony in 1673. Hezekiah Usher was one of them. Land and slaves were the driving force for the colonies during the “Second Puritan War of Conquest” also called “King Philip’s War.”
The first conflict in the valley was conducted by Capt. Richard Beers and Capt. Thomas Lathrop against a fleeing group of peaceful Indians, including women, children and elders. The warriors dropped back at Hopewell Swamp to allow their families to escape (there were casualties on both sides. Beers and Lathrop paid with their lives shortly afterward.
The war wore down both sides and peace treaties were offered to the tribes. Pessacus (at the Falls) released John Gilbert, an English captive, the day before their meeting at Hartford, Conn., on April 30, 1676, as a show of good faith. Both sides agreed to work on a treaty. English captives were to be released.
Around May 4, Mary Rowlandson carried a letter from Philip, Pomham, the Old Queen and others seeking peace with Boston. On May 15, captive Thomas Reede was set free from the Falls and returned to Hadley with information about the lack of warriors (possibly 60). The rest of the village was comprised of women, children and elders because it was a refugee camp where all would have been fishing and drying the catch. They were not hunting as stated because it was not the season and fishing was more productive.
Shortly after Reede’s return, Rev. John Russell of Hadley asked permission from Hartford to attack the Falls. He was refused because of the ongoing treaty. Russell next contacted Gov. Leverett who was related through marriages. Leverett OK’d the attack. This completed this circle and Turner’s debt to Leverett was paid. Turner marched on the Falls May 18 with his 160 men (almost three men per every warrior present according to Reede’s remarks).
One needs to get beyond books written to justify past actions and actually review the old documents of the time and connect the players with the events.
Howard Clark is an anthropologist and historical researcher, and has done research for different tribes in the area. He was co-founder of both Friends of Wissaatinnewag and the Nolumbeka Project. He lives in Greenfield.