May 18, 2012

What bloody part to act was thine?

At the site of a waterfall in present day Montague, Massachusetts, a tribe of Native Americans often went fishing in the 17th century. The Peskeompscut, as the tribe was called, also made occasional cattle raids on the nearby English farmers during King Philip's War. Captain William Turner determined to restore the stolen cattle. He led a group of about 150 armed men (and boys) to the waterfall on May 18, 1676. Trudging through densely wooded areas and crossing the Deerfield River took them about a day. In the morning, he Turner ordered his men to fire inside the huts of the still-sleeping Natives — including women, children, and elderly people — earning the event the nickname the Peskeompscut Massacre. Captain Turner was killed in the battle which ensued, as well as 40 of his men. The nearby waterfall was renamed Turner's Falls; a memorial marks the location today (its inscription is somewhat ambiguous as to what it actually commemorates).

For decades, visitors to the site would find relics of the battle, including bullets. Such was inspiration for a poem by local farmer/newspaperman/poet Josiah Dean Canning, "Lines to a Bullet" (circa 1838):

Thou battered bit of ancient lead,
I bless the day when thou wast found,
And him who turned thee from thy bed
                     Low in the ground!

Relic thou art of that stern day,
When in the havoc made with life
Thy resting place, our fathers say,
                     Was red with strife.

Hadst thou but language, veteran ball,
Thy silence should no longer be;
The story of that fight should all
                     Be made to me.

How broke that fatal morn! Without
No eager dogs awoke the chase,
But battle's voice and 'larum shout
                     Rose stern in place.

What bloody part to act was thine
In that dark tragedy? I'd ask.
I would to know the tale were mine,
                     I to tell, my task.

I doubt not but thy viewless flight
Was winged with sudden death that day;
By thee struck palsied 'mid the fight,
                     The warrior lay.

And, sharer of his bed in earth,
His sleep of ages was thine own;
Till time at length has called thee forth
                     To light, alone!

How changed to thee must earth appear,
Awaking thus from long repose!
Where led the nimble-footed deer,
                     The tall grain grows.

Here did the red-browed Sagamore
His bitter, wo-fraught lesson learn;
Here did he from his wigwam door
                     In sorrow turn.

Where are those sons of nature fled
During thy long and dreamless sleep?
Dumb as the spirits of the dead
                     For aye thou 'lt keep.

Ah, sad the ties that blend with thee,
Dearer than history's storied page ;
Sacred forever shalt thou be,
                     Relic of age!

And as I prize thee, I'd refuse
For thee thy weight in sordid gold,
For half thy worth by my dull muse
                     Cannot be told.

Thou battered bit of ancient lead!
I bless the day when thou wert found,
And him who turned thee from thy bed
                     Low in the ground.

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