Saturday event remembers Great Falls Massacre, marks 20th anniversary of reconciliation ceremony

By DOMENIC POLI

Staff Writer

Published: 05-16-2024 2:41 PM

Modified: 05-16-2024 5:07 PM


TURNERS FALLS — The 348th anniversary of the Great Falls Massacre will be marked with a Day of Remembrance on Saturday, as well as a commemoration of the 20th anniversary of the reconciliation ceremony held to establish friendship and trust between once-warring cultures.

The event, set for 1 to 3:30 p.m. at the Great Falls Discovery Center, will feature tribal elder Liz ColdWind Santana Kiser and Roger Longtoe Sheehan, chief of the Elnu Abenaki Tribe, as honored guests.

“It’s kind of a like a celebration of life,” said David Brule, president of the Nolumbeka Project, the nonprofit putting on the event. It will take place on the lawn behind the Discovery Center, weather permitting. In case of inclement weather, it will be moved to the building’s Great Hall. It is free to attend and there will be light refreshments.

Brule said the event is held as close as possible to May 19, the actual anniversary of the event also known as the Great Falls Massacre.

Santana Kiser is the tribal historic preservation officer for the Chaubunagungamaug band of the Nipmuck people. She is also a member of the Battlefield Grant Advisory Committee, as is Sheehan. Santana Kiser’s and Sheehan’s ancestors were affected by the massacre.

Santana Kiser, who lives in Worcester, said she intends to deliver a remembrance speech and touch on the lives lost in the attack.

“I want to talk a little bit about why we’re here,” Santana Kiser said.

She also wants to stress the Connecticut River’s importance and the responsibility of all to prevent atrocities.

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“This is a part of history that has been hidden for a very long time,” she said.

Sheehan, a singer living in Westminster, Vermont, said he plans to perform a few songs at the event and will be available to chat and answer questions. He said he has attended the Day of Remembrance several times and describes the occasion as somewhat sad but important. He mentioned the event is attended by people of various backgrounds wanting to learn more about what happened on May 19, 1676.

The yearly Day of Remembrance is, in some ways, a continuation of the reconciliation ceremony held in 2004, when the town of Montague and members of the Narragansett tribe formally recognized the 1676 conflict.

Brule explained that on May 18, 1676, Capts. William Turner and Elizur Holyoke left Hatfield with 150 mounted infantrymen and arrived in Greenfield, near where Factory Hollow Road is now. All the men dismounted their horses, crossed the river and waited until dawn on May 19 before launching a surprise raid on an Indigenous camp of non-combatant women, children and elderly people.

“[Colonists] just began firing into wigwams and chased many of the people into the river, and they were swept over the falls and drowned,” Brule said.

He said the particularly striking aspect is that the raiders did not attack camps filled with soldiers of allied Indigenous nations. It is estimated that 250 to 300 Indigenous people died in the attack.

Brule mentioned many of the colonists were inadequately trained “farm boys” put at a disadvantage by their superiors. He explained many lingered too long in the enemy camp, creating enough time for a counterattack from the Indigenous coalition made up of Nipmuck, Abenaki, Wampanoag, Narragansett and other tribes. The counterattack spanned from the site of the raid to Deerfield.

“It was a running battle of 7 miles,” Brule said.

He also said the colonists were unfamiliar with the terrain, and the more experienced Indigenous fighters lay in wait and launched ambushes along the retreat, killing 48 to 50 colonists, including Turner.

Brule said the initial raid occurred just months before the end of King Philip’s War, which concluded by August. He said the raid was likely revenge for Indigenous people stealing cattle from Hatfield. Still, Brule stressed that he always tells white people they should not feel guilt over what has happened to Native peoples in the past.

“It is not for us any longer a day of mourning,” he said, adding that the tide of history has changed. “And Native people are ... feeling that they can step forward and be understood as part of a fabric of the communities. But they have, for a long time, stayed under the radar, really. And times have changed.”

Reach Domenic Poli at: dpoli@recorder.com or 413-930-4120.