The Gipsy (Gypsy) Ground

grau map 1860 gipsy grounds cedar street

Dr. C.W. Grau area map, circa 1860 from Old Maps

Charles William Grau was a noted physician first at Brattleboro’s Wesselhoeft Water-Cure (1848), followed by the Lawrence Water-Cure (1853), and later in private practice. A key ingredient of his naturopathic treatment regimen was extensive outdoor exposure, in the form of walks, and drives. To encourage and facilitate the practice, he became a skilled cartographer, preparing detailed maps of nearby paths, roads, and scenic features for devotees.

On his large area map, there is a dotted line going north-south, connecting Western Avenue with Asylum Street, and intersecting the latter between the Retreat proper and the Retreat Farm. Just a trail or footpath at the time, this was to become today’s Cedar Street. Upon the area immediately south of the Farm and west of the Retreat is a two-word legend cryptically stating “Gypsy Grounds.” This is the land at the base of Harris Hill Ski Jump, still a cleared field surrounded by forest and relatively undisturbed except for the looming jump ramp.

While there were a number of Romanichal (an Anglo-Romani subgroup from the British Isles) in North America at the time – most of them deported here unwillingly – “gypsy” was a term applied generally to anyone with a perceived migratory lifestyle. Most of the better-known Eastern European Romani emigrated to the US later in the 1800’s, primarily to urban areas. In Vermont, sociologists agree that the term “gypsy” was often a reference to the indigenous Abenaki and their kin, some of whom adopted an intinerant peddler version of their annual subsistence cycles. Returning to their traditional homelands in family groups with horse-drawn wagons, they sold baskets and woodenware, worked as day laborers, offered herbal treatments, and hunted and gathered as had their ancestors in the self-same places.

Dr. Grau’s 1860 “Gypsy Grounds” was and is one of these places. There are a number of historical newspaper accounts of gypsy visitations to Brattleboro in the 19th century, focusing on several specific localities. The area around the Retreat Farm and Meadows is documented as a known pre-European-Contact settlement site. The developing onslaught of war and colonization made sustainable Abenaki continuance untenable, driving the people and their culture out of sight and often far away. But the descendants of those forced off the land remembered their ties to the homelands and would return as they were able, living on the fringes of the growing towns and conducting their own affairs in a radically-changed social landscape. And those descendants are still here in Vermont, reclaiming their stories and reaffirming their connections to the land, at the place called Wantastegok and now known as Brattleboro.

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The Vernon Dam Part 2 from BHS and BAMS: Flooding Wantastegok

This is Part 2 of a two-part story, within the podcast series from Brattleboro Historical Society, produced by Joe Rivers and his BAMS history students. You can check out Part 1 here. It gives additional background to the subsuming of critical areas in Sokwakik, and particularly the flooding of  the Retreat Meadows, by the completion of the Vernon, Vermont hydroelectric dam in 1909. Prior to this date, the now-flooded meadows – known as mskodak in Aln8baiwi – were prime farmland for the Sokwakiak who dwelt here, and subsequently the European settlers that arrived in the mid-1700’s. There are multiple newspaper reports of native burials being exhumed within this alluvial bowl, just west of the mouth of the Wantastekw (I will be documenting them here over time). Sokoki Abenaki heritage and interests were ignored and ravaged, a situation which remains ongoing and challenging.

Retreat Farm Expansion Underway

retreat-farm-staff

The Retreat Farm’s makeover-in-progress is mostly likely observed if you’re driving in or out of Brattleboro via Route 30. The Windham Foundation donated the property to Retreat Farm LTD and grants have propelled the nonprofit to this point. “We’re just about to kick off additional fundraising,” said Arthur “Buzz” Schmidt, Retreat Farm president. Close to $1 million has already been spent on planning, groundwork and renovation of the farmhouse, according to Schmidt’s estimate.

Retreat Farm was transferred to his group on Aug. 19, a little later than originally anticipated due to issues with subdividing the land. The Grafton Cheese Factory had to be separated from the parcel. The business is owned and operated by the Windham Foundation. Last winter, the state approved an Act 250 permit so some development on the property could begin. A master plan application will still be needed for Act 250 review.

Altogether, there are 600 acres that Schmidt’s group is responsible for maintaining, including Retreat Meadows, trails, woodland and a farmstead. “It’s an expansive complex property,” Schmidt said. “There’s an underlying easement with the Vermont Land Trust that restricts the development on the property really to one 25-acre farmstead. That’s where all the development has to occur. We can develop farm resources on the other lands and we’re doing that.”

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Note: The land at and near the Retreat Farm is highly sensitive for indigenous heritage and cultural lifeways, in more ways than one. Discussions have been initiated with the team (specifically Buzz and Lu, at this point); they are aware of this aspect and intend to incorporate awareness and respect into their long-range plans.

Full story by Chris Mays in the Brattleboro Reformer.

More information can be found at retreatfarm.org and on Facebook.

 

No Evidences of Indian Settlements in This Town

vt-phoenix-july-7-1876

The strangest statements may be found in the local newspapers, reflecting the absolute conviction of the times – in the face of self-stated evidence – that there was, and is, no notable indigenous presence.

From The Vermont Phoenix, Brattleboro, VT July 7, 1876.

A Long Time Ago in Brattleboro

Worth sharing in its entirety: this post by Lise LePage appeared on iBrattleboro.com last month, amidst the effort to make a change from Columbus day to Indigenous Peoples’ Day here in Brattleboro. She used the occasion to give a synopsis of her personal research over the years into the pre-contact and early contact history between the Sokwakiak and the first British settlers. For those unfamiliar with the details of that first clash of cultures in what we now call Vermont, it’s a good look at a quintessential example of colonialism at work right here. Original link here.

Brattleboro Celebrates First Indigenous Peoples Day

By Lise | Sun, October 09 2016

It’s not often that something happens that cries out to be corrected and then, in a matter of days, it is.  I’m not talking about Vermont’s GMO law either (which Congress mooted within the month) – no, I’m talking about Indigenous Peoples Day which has been proposed, here and elsewhere, as a less racist and more fair alternative to traditional Columbus Day.  Unfortunately, honoring native American people was not something the Selectboard could get its collective mind around and Indigenous Peoples Day lost here in Brattleboro by a vote of 2-3.  But just when you thought all was lost, along comes Governor Shumlin with a state-wide proclamation of Indigenous Peoples Day, signed, sealed, and delivered.  What do you know, we get to celebrate Indigenous People’s Day after all.

This is a good thing.  We should celebrate the native people of our country – for starters, we’re sitting on their land. In fact, the first beachhead established by the British settlers in the Brattleboro area was on the site of a Squakeag village situated on the Hinsdale side of the Connecticut just above the Vernon Dam.  Ironically, Fort Dummer was established to control the Indians moving up and down the river, especially those raiding the English villages further south.

Before the English got here, the Squakeag  (southernmost branch of the Abenaki) were the inhabitants of the land from Brattleboro down to Northfield, Massachusetts.  It was a good place to live – abundant beaver and salmon along the waterways, decent land for cultivation, and best of all, maple sugar in the spring.  The Squakeag apparently loved to sugar – it was the one activity that brought the whole family of men, women, and children, young and old together.  Then as now, people like a sweet treat.

There’s an anecdote published in Thomas St. John’s Brattleboro History Scrapbook that suggests that the area around the Retreat Meadows might once have been a regular gathering place for native people.  According to Rev. Jedidiah L. Stark of West Brattleboro (writing in the 1830s), unspecified native people used to come here and dance in the meadow above where the Retreat Farm used to be.  According to Mr. Stark, the circle was so compacted from the weight of those many dancing feet that it remained visible and free of vegetation years after the Indians stopped coming.

Another indicator that Brattleboro’s Retreat Meadows was at the least a notable location for native people are the pictograms found carved in the rocks around the Meadows.  Surely there was a reason to mark this spot so strategically located at the confluence of two rivers.  Perhaps (I surmise) people came through here often on their way to other places and stopped to camp (and perhaps dance) here.  It would make sense.  The first lasting  settlement in Brattleboro by an English person* was Arms Tavern, an inn and stagecoach stop, located where the Retreat Farm buildings are now.   One marvels at the coincidence.

Native people made one of their last visits to our area in the 1850s when an elderly chieftain made his final visit to Bellows Falls.  He and his people had made summer visits for generations, and the old chief wanted to be buried with his ancestors.  As autumn turned to winter, he passed away and was buried by his sons, who then traveled back to Canada never to return.  The Indians who visited Bellows Falls had long since ceased to be scary and local residents looked forward to their arrival each spring.  It was a sad year when Bellows Falls realized that their Indian visitors would not be coming back.

Today, many descendants of the Squakeag band live in the St. Francis area of Canada where they were driven in the aftermath of King Philip’s War.  Others still live here in Vermont, assimilated under English names, partly in self defense.  We can’t alter the past, but here in the present we can take one small step toward owning that past.  Happy Indigenous People’s Day, everyone!

*The first less lasting settlement was located in the exact same location, a homestead built by Captain Fairbanks Moore for himself and his family.  Unfortunately, he and his son were both killed in an Indian raid soon after taking up residence there, and the remaining Moores, after being redeemed from captivity, moved away.

Seeing Between the Lines

birdseye view north wantastiquet postcard after 1909

A vintage postcard, from sometime shortly after 1909.

The river central to the vista is the Wantastekw, now known as the West River, just west of its confluence with the Kwanitekw (today’s Anglicized Connecticut River), in the northeast corner of Brattleboro, Vermont.  The postcard’s legend could more accurately be described as northwest from the northern end of Mount Wantastiquet’s ridgeline. As far as dating this scene, the wide expanse of blue in the foreground indicates that the river’s water level is higher as pictured than its natural state of repose, due to the impoundment of the Connecticut by the construction of the Vernon hydroelectric dam eight miles downriver in 1909, by a business consortium which became known as New England Power. But the area known as the Retreat Meadows – the medium brown swathe just left of the broad watery area – had not yet been subsumed by the impoundment, as it is has been today – flooded permanently. An effort to maintain the Meadows as agricultural land, using a dike and a pumping station paid for by the hydropower developer, was successful for a few years but subsequently abandoned. Also worth pointing out is the fact that color cues in a hand-colored photograph such as this are not always reliable: studio artists often worked from a photographer’s notes remote from the site, and mistakes of interpretation were made. In this case, the thin band of blue at the lower left is mistakenly tinted as water; it is actually open land, perhaps that of the Richards Bradley farm, west of Putney Road and just south of the West River bridges.

north-view-wantastekw-wantastiquet

The same view today (Niben – Summer 2016).