September 30, 2010

In Madison, site of slaughter gets facelift

MADISON -- The town can't change the history that comes with the site of one of the largest slaughters of native Americans in Maine. But it can mend the landscape and teach people about the area's significance.

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TALL UNDERTAKING: Maine Conservation Corps member Corey Hawkins of Hallowell rakes new sand around a picnic table and fire pit in the restored “Pines” off the Father Rasle Road in Madison on Wednesday.

Staff photo by David Leaming

"The Pines," an area next to the Kennebec River on Father Rasle Road, is near where the Norridgewock Indians, a band of the Abenaki tribe, were massacred by the English in 1724. The conflict, pitting the French and Abenakis against the English, marked the end of the tribe in the area.

The spot beneath tall pines has become overgrown over the years, and people have dumped their trash there. Now, the national historic landmark is becoming a place for people gather and learn about its history.

The improvements are long overdue, said Joy Hikel, Madison's economic development director. "It's a place of national historic significance."

With about $26,000 in grant money and $6,000 from the town, the area now has a 32-foot wooden bridge over a swampy area and a stone walkway to the river. The overgrowth beneath the pines is being cleared. By wintertime, three granite picnic tables will be in place, along with stone monuments depicting the history of the site.

Hikel said cleaning up the area will draw classes from local schools, allow native Americans to perform rituals there and open the area to community members for picnics and gatherings. A mile of trail along the river is also being improved.

Members of the Maine Conservation Corps are working to spread gravel to make the area handicap-accessible and create an accessible lookout point. Highway department volunteers have already cut brush.

While wheelchairs, bikes, horses, skiers, runners and walkers are allowed, ATVs, four-wheelers and vehicles are not. Fishermen are welcome, Hikel said, calling that section of river a "fly-fishing delight."

The area is on a section of land called Old Point, which juts into the river. The struggles there are known through the accounts of French Jesuit priest Sebastian Rasle, who came from Quebec and lived with the Abenakis about 30 years, beginning in the late 17th century, according to Cultural Resources Management, a program of the U.S. Department of the Interior.

Rasle established a mission at Old Point where he created a dictionary of the Abenaki language and learned their customs. The dictionary is now at Harvard University, and the Abenaki settlement was located where Old Point Cemetery is now. Rasle witnessed numerous conflicts between British colonizers encroaching on Abenaki land, along with Abenaki retaliation.

The final and largest outbreak came in August 1724 when the English proceeded up the Kennebec and executed dozens of Abenakis at Old Point. Although accounts vary, about 150 troops killed 60 people, and wounded many more. They killed, maimed and scalped Rasle. The tribe never recovered.

The site was later a stopping point for Benedict Arnold, a general during the American Revolutionary War.

Although local artifact collectors perused Old Point, the first systematic excavations were conducted by the University of Maine at Farmington in 1988 and 1990. Afterward, the area, together with two other nearby sites, was determined eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places. While the land has changed ownership many times through the years, it is now owned by the town.

Jim Elias owns Elias Monuments, across the road from the Old Point Cemetery, and will create the educational signs. He said in his father's time, "the Pines" was widely known as a place for picnics.

In the late 60s it became a popular hang-out, but it's since been largely forgotten. It will take time for people to start coming back, but "the evolution process will take place naturally, and they'll feel comfortable here because it's cleaned up," Elias said.

Hikel applied for the $25,600 grant in Nov. 2009, and it was awarded in May. The money comes from the U.S. Department of Transportation, Federal Highway Administration, and is handed down through the Grants and Community Recreation Division of the Maine Bureau of Parks and Lands, which is part of the Maine Department of Conservation.

Erin Rhoda -- 474-9534

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