Native American Fort at
Fort Hill

Map of Native American Fort at Fort Hill

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Mapshows the plan of excavated features at Fort Hill on the Taunton River, as revealed by Cohannet Chapter excavations in 1952.

 

"The Indian Fort" at Fort Hill

Starting at Titicut Bridge on Plymouth Street, now called World War II Veterans Memorial Bridge, and moving downstream approximately mile, Table or Sentinel Rock appears on the east side of the river. It was here on July 13, 1621, that Edward Winslow and Stephen Hopkins stopped the first night on their way to visit Massasoit at Mount Hope in Bristol, RI. Along with Tisquantum (Squanto), their Indian guide, they found Nemasket Indians fishing on a weir at sunset, where they caught bass. The Indians welcomed and fed them and here they spent the first night at Fort Hill. In the morning six Indians joined their party and escorted Winslow and Hopkins downstream to Mount Hope Bay. (Weston-1906)

Winslow wrote of this river: "The head of the river is reported to be not far from the place of our abode. The ground is very good on both sides, it being for the most part cleared. Thousands of men have lived there, which died in a great plague (1617) not long since; and pity it was and is to see so many goodly fields and so well seated, without men to dress and manure the same."

The river's bank rises steeply behind Sentinel Rock, to a height of 35 feet at the top of the bluff. Here is a commanding view of the low lands to the north. It was here that a small palisade fort was built (around 1600), by Nemasket Indians in Contact days, as a defense against attack from their Indian enemies. The fort's existence is verified by memoranda from early times in the Bennett family. There were two doors to the Fort, one next to the river and one on the opposite side. Weston's History of Middleboro relates the following story:

"One day they (Nemaskets) were surprised by a formidable force of Narragansett Indians, with whom they were at war at the time. Unfortunately, there were only eight men in the Fort. The others were hunting and fishing. What, therefore, now to do they could not tell, but something must be done and immediately. Therefore, every Indian bound on his blanket and arrows and took his bow and rushed out of the back door through the bushes and down the bank to the river. Then by the river, in the opposite direction from their enemies a small distance, then ascended the bank in sight of their enemy, then up the bank and through the Fort as before. This round of deception they continued until the enemy, being surprised that the Fort consisted of so formidable a number, left the ground precipitately and retired, fearing an attack from the vast number in the Fort."

Using this information and a statement handed down in the Dunham family, saying the Fort was located on the hill above Sentinel Rock, excavation commenced in 1952 by the Cohannet chapter of the Massachusetts Archaeological Society. Exploratory testing soon uncovered four lines of post molds. The east wall was mostly destroyed by gravel removal done by the Pratt family, who owned this property during the middle to late 1700's. The Fort was found to have a rectangular shape of 35 feet wide by 41'6" long, with the longest side along the river. The datum point was measured from the center of Pratt's Bridge on Vernon Street and showed the Fort to be 1200 feet upstream and 35 feet above the river. This position offered an excellent view both upstream and downstream for mile in each direction. One important natural feature was a fine spring within 100 feet of the Fort, that would have insured a successful defense of long duration. (Taylor - 1976)

Approximately 90 small stone artifacts were recovered inside the Fort, plus 30 pieces of Contact material - copper points, musket balls, kaolin pipe fragments, glass beads, glass mirror, steel knife blade, etc. (Dodge-1953) On the steep hillside below the Fort, 7 musket balls were found and several more in the field beyond, where overshots occurred during their skirmishes.

Outside the Fort copper arrow points, musket balls and gun flints show evidence that beside the bow-and-arrow of the Bennett account a flintlock gun or two were obtained from the English and used during this period. The remains of a camp behind the Fort strongly suggest that here may have been the wigwams in which the defenders of the Fort lived. (Taylor-1976)

After submitting my original manuscript in 1974, the Editor of the M.A.S. Bulletin requested additional information concerning the Indian Fort. I contacted Dr. Maurice Robbins, who located the old records and offered the following comments and interpretation of the excavation:

"The dark line which represents the old line posts is shown (Fig. 1). Within it we were able to discern a number of individual posts as indicated, the rest of the line was simply black earth and charcoal. The ancient trench outline was apparently a ditch dug to receive the posts. We profiled only a portion of the west side of the fort, before we were obliged to stop work on order of the new owner. This was sufficient to show that the ends of the large posts were set against the back edge of the trench which was then refilled, probably leaving an embankment on the outside of the walls. The posts shown in the doorway were pointed and evidently driven. There are many gaps in the line of the stockade. These were probably made by trees or other natural disturbance. The earth had been previously removed in the area indicated, thus nearly obliterating the east wall of the stockade.

It seems to me that there is a good possibility that the stockade was burned, thus leaving the dark line of charcoal to mark the walls. The gaps may have been portions that did not burn and were later pulled down and removed; this eliminated the trench in that area and left no trace of the posts. This is, of course, merely a guess. Possibly the interior posts represent a structure along the inside walls, a sort of narrow platform from which one could shoot at anyone outside the wall. The rectangular outline (9 feet by 19 feet) may be that of a shelter, but may also be simply a firing platform. The large pit beneath this structure was about 6 feet in diameter and about 4 feet deep at the center. In addition to deer bones, clam, oyster and quahog shells, there were a number of bones in the pit from the domesticated pig and possibly a sheep." (Robbins-1976)

At the bottom of the pit 40 to 50 silver pins were discovered. These were laid out in a row, as if pinned to a sheet of cardboard that had long disintegrated. These pins were inches in length with a round head, about 1/16 inches in diameter.

One final note of interest concerns the sand pit which destroyed the east stockade wall. The Pratt Family, who originally owned this land, once farmed the fields surrounding the Fort. During gravel removing operation, a stone pipe with a sheet of copper stem was found. The dark green bowl of this pipe was almost square and had a short stem attached, which was extended by a rolled tube of copper. It is now in the collection of the R.S. Peabody Foundation in Andover. Although two other sandpits are near the Fort, it seems likely that the one adjoining the stockade held the pipe, since several other Contact artifacts were excavated within the structure.

References:

Dodge, Karl S. 1953-1953 Preliminary Report of Field Activities at Fort Hill M.A.S. Bulletin Vol. 14: 79-82

Robbins, Maurice 1976 - The Fort Hill Bluff Site M.A.S. Bulletin Vol. 38 (1&2): 7-12

Taylor, William B. 1976 - The Fort Hill Bluff Site M.A.S. Bulletin Vol. 38 (1&2): 7-12

Weston, Thomas 1906 - History of the Town of Middleboro, Massachusetts by Houghton, Mifflin and Company, Boston, MA

 

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Thank you to one of our local historians,
Bill Taylor of Middleborough for photo and story.