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  • Historians Sift Clues To Long-Ago Massacre

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    Historians Sift Clues To Long-Ago Massacre

    Mar 5, 2006

    By Michael Dinan
    Staff Writer

    Published March 5 2006

    No gravestone marks their final resting place and no history book can
    pinpoint the day they died.

    Yet on a late winter morning in 1644, local history says, 130 Dutch and
    English soldiers marched onto the Strickland Plains of Cos Cob to burn and
    butcher some 600 to 1,000 Indians -- more than died at the Alamo and double the
    toll at Little Bighorn.

    "Roasted and tortured to agony by the fire, they darted out here and there
    from the flames only to be brought to the ground by the unerring aim of the
    soldiery, who were on the alert for the poor victims," Daniel Merritt Mead
    wrote in his 1857 work, "History of Greenwich." "Finally their horrid moans and
    cries were hushed, and the flames and the hissing of the boiling pools of
    blood died away, leaving hundreds of crisped bodies on the blood-stained snow."

    The slaughter of the Indians, including women and children, has been retold
    many times since the era of Greenwich's founding in 1640 --Êa period of
    bitter unrest between colonists and natives.

    But the history of the so-called "Big Massacre" --Êwhich experts agree
    pitted European forces, led from Old Greenwich's Tomac Cove by notorious Capt.
    John Underhill, against Siwanoy Indians camped inland -- is beset today with
    uncertainties, as historians debate where it happened. Based on the sole
    firsthand account of the massacre, modern historians trace the soldiers' path much
    farther north, into Westchester County, N.Y.

    The difficulty with Mead's account is that it appears to rely on
    questionable sources, though his dramatic telling has persisted enough to carve out a
    niche in the Greenwich psyche, said Susan Richardson, former archivist of The
    Historical Society of the Town of Greenwich.

    "One of the problems with bad history is that when it's repeated often
    enough, then it becomes the story," Richardson said. "He never says here's where
    he got this or that. We don't know if this is something told by a member of
    his family, or some yarn he heard hanging around Town Hall or over the wood

    Mead may never have read the only eyewitness description of the massacre,
    scrawled on seven pages by an anonymous Dutch soldier and lodged three years
    later, in 1647, at the Royal Library in the Hague, Netherlands.

    The soldier described the natives' final moments:

    "They were surrounded and it was impossible for anyone to escape. In one
    hour one counted 180 dead outside the houses. After that they did not dare to
    come outside, keeping themselves inside and shooting with arrows through the
    holes. The General, remarking that nothing else could be accomplished, decided
    with the Sgt. Maj. van der Hil to put the houses to fire. Whereupon the Wild
    (Indians) tried everything to escape, which they did not succeed in, from
    either being burned by the fire or to die through our weapons. What was even
    more remarkable was that among this big crowd of men, women and children one
    could not hear anyone moan or scream."

    According to the soldier, a small band of surviving Indians themselves
    reported 500 dead.

    The massacre's method --Êsetting fire to long houses, then stabbing or
    shooting the fleeing natives --Êrecalls a far better known 1638 attack in Mystic,
    also led by Underhill. That attack, a battle of the Pequot War in which an
    estimated 500 natives were killed, is "comparable" to the 1644 massacre, said
    Connecticut State Historian Walt Woodward.

    "It's striking in some ways that the massacre of the Pequots has become a
    focal point in Connecticut history where this 'secondary' event is
    understudied, or unstudied," said Woodward, an assistant history professor at the
    University of Connecticut.

    More important to local historians, the soldier's account provides a sort of
    treasure map to locating the Indian camp, a titillating series of clues
    describing the terrain trod by the war party as it marched from Tomac Cove -- the
    site of Old Greenwich's original "town dock" --Êto the Indian camp.

    "All accounts and speculation as to the location of the Indian village stems
    from those seven pages," Tony Godino, 61, of Bedford, N.Y., a retired
    builder who has studied the massacre for 20 years, said on a recent evening from
    the soldiers' landing site.

    "This is where they started," Godino said. "This is the only place where the
    water was deep enough."

    Where the war party went from there is a subject of conjecture.
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  • #2
    The Dutch soldier offers minor clues as to the Indian camp's location. The
    European company came ashore and made camp for the night as a snowstorm hit
    the coast. In the morning they started out in a northwesterly direction and
    crawled "on all fours" over "stone mountains." By 8 p.m. they were within a mile
    of the natives. The men waited to attack, the soldier wrote, because they
    still had to "cross two rivers, one 200 feet wide and three feet deep."

    The Europeans -- for years engaged in bloody battles with the natives over
    territory and trading -- surprised the Indians by attacking by the light of a
    full moon, the soldier wrote. The group had tried for at least a year to
    locate the natives' winter camp, and finally succeeded with the help of an Indian

    Based on the description and his own topographical studies, Godino places
    the Indian encampment under what is known as Raven Rock, in the Pound Ridge
    Reservation. Godino believes "two rivers" actually refers to two sections --Êone
    wide and shallow, the other narrow --Êof the Mianus River.

    Others disagree, and Woodward says such disagreements are typical among
    those who trawl through such old documents.

    "The contemporary information doesn't have the specificity that makes it
    useful in finding the exact spot," Woodward said. "They'll describe the
    circumstances and may say how long it took to get from one spot to another, but that
    doesn't tell you where they are because you don't how fast they were moving.
    From their standpoint that's not particularly important. They just want to
    tell you what happened. They don't know that in years to come there will be
    several million living in same area who want to know the exact spot."

    Col. Thatcher T.P. Luquer, in a 1945 article for the Westchester County
    Historical Society, says the soldiers left from Greenwich Cove, and attacked near
    a wide portion of the Croton River near Woods Bridge, which spans Katonah
    and Yorktown. According to Lucqer's own geographical study, the "two rivers"
    must have been the Croton and Cross rivers.

    Former Old Greenwich resident John Alexander "Sandy" Buckland largely agrees
    with Luquer's version -- except that he places the soldiers' starting point
    at Tomac Cove instead of Greenwich Harbor.

    "No landing existed there at the time," Buckland wrote in his 2002 book "The
    Wiechquaeskeck Indians of Southwestern Connecticut in the Seventeenth

    Buckland also attempts to explain Mead's mistaken history as confusing the
    "Big Massacre" with a smaller skirmish that occurred a year earlier in Cos Cob.

    During the earlier attack, which may well have occurred on the Strickland
    Plains --Êpresently the area of Field Road, behind the Cos Cob fire station --
    "about twenty old people, women and young children who were staying there for
    the winter" were killed, Buckland explained.

    Richardson said "no serious historian" any longer believes that Mead was
    correct about the location of the massacre.

    Yet Mead's account, a standard version for nearly 200 years, survived
    through the 20th century. It appearedÊin the Connecticut edition of the venerable
    American Guide Series in 1938 and is even noted in "Greenwich Before 2000,"
    published just six years ago.

    The longevity of his tale may have been helped by a rather embellished
    account that appeared in another Greenwich history book, written by his second
    cousin, Spencer Mead.

    Spencer Mead asserts that the "two rivers" are the Mianus River and
    Strickland Brook, in a 1911 book bearing the overwrought title "Ye Historie of Ye
    Town of Greenwich."

    "The Indians tried every means to escape, but not succeeding they cast
    themselves into the flames, preferring to perish by fire rather than the sword,
    and among the mass of men, women, and children none were heard to cry out or
    scream," Spencer Mead wrote.

    Godino found his emotional hook for the story in that silence, also reported
    by the Dutch soldier.

    "To me it was the most empowering thing they could have done given the
    circumstances," Godino said. "They knew they were doomed and they chose to die in
    silence, and there were plenty of children inside the three long houses."

    The story moved Godino's friend Daniel Martin --Êa former priest from
    Belfast -- to verse.

    Martin, 58, now an organizational consultant in Cross River, N.Y., penned
    "Massacre" --Êa narrative poem that tells the story of the attack in a pair of
    dramatic monologues.

    Part of the poem reads:

    We left Greenwich,

    one hundred and thirty strong

    and rough hewn,

    like the cold rocks

    we clambered over,

    slowed by the deep snow that was

    a cover to hide us,

    or maybe a shroud to bury them.

    Martin came to the United States in 1984 and finished a year's residency at
    St. Catherine of Siena Church in Riverside.

    "How could you not get into this story? It just found me," he said as he
    gazed from Tomac Cove inland, the direction of the soldiers' path.

    Such massacres were common in the Northeast during the area's settlement in
    the 1600s, Woodward said, particularly because the colonists feared that the
    Indian tribes would unite to fight against them.

    The fear was realized in 1675 with the start of King Philip's War, a
    yearlong Indian uprising across New England in which 600 colonists and 3,000 natives
    were killed.

    That tally is staggering, Woodward said, leading many historians to focus on
    the battles of King Philip's War as opposed to the conflicts that led up to
    it. But each atrocity scars the conscience, Woodward said, no matter the
    final toll.

    "I guess people should decide for themselves at what point does a massacre
    become horrific," he said. "I think for me, in my naivetŽ, anything over one
    is a lot."

    Copyright © 2006, Southern Connecticut
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