The Silvio O. Conte National Wildlife Refuge, colloquially known as “The Meadows,” is a stretch of meadows and wetlands that dominate the western lowlands of Longmeadow, MA. This area has been the site of human habitation for over 10,000 years and from the late 19th century onwards, it has been the subject of approximately three archaeological digs, which have uncovered many interesting artifacts from Longmeadow’s past.
The first series of excavations started in the spring of 1883 when Frederic Ward Putnam, the “Father of American Archaeology,” was notified by an Agawam farmer named Benjamin Wilson Lord that there were Native American burial sites across the river from where he lived. Per the 1880 census, Lord was a 41-year-old native of East Windsor, Connecticut.
Ceramic rim and body shards recovered by Putnam in 1883.
Credit Peabody Museum at Harvard College
While Putnam only seems to have visited the site once, Lord kept going back through the spring of 1885 and continued to send artifacts and human remains to Putnam at Harvard’s Peabody Museum where he was president. If you are interested in learning more about the artifacts unearthed during these excavations, you can do so by going to https://collections.peabody.harvard.edu/collections and using the advanced search function and searching “Longmeadow”. From there you can learn more about the 35 artifacts that are in the Peabody collection because of Putnam and Lord. In recent years, museums like the Peabody have begun the process of reevaluating their practices of collecting, displaying, and interpreting collections of items such as those from Longmeadow, which include the human remains of indigenous people. For more on their current work see their statement here.
For nearly a century afterward, the Meadows remained untouched by trained archaeologists until 1969 when American International College (AIC) Sociology Professor, Robert Lowrie, led a series of excavations in the then Fannie Stebbins Reservation and Wildlife Refuge looking for Native American artifacts. During these digs, Lowrie was assisted by both students from AIC and members of the Springfield Naturalist Club. They found artifacts such as steatite bowl shards, scrapers, and other tools. He believed that the people who used the tools were from a culture that lived around 1800 BC that was transitioning from a hunter-gatherer mode of living to one based more in horticulture. These digs continued until 1971 and the artifacts are currently in storage at AIC.
Peabody Museum, Harvard
Lowrie inspired an AIC student, Margaret Stoler, to take up her own line of archeological inquiry into the past of the Meadows. Stoler was a History major and Anthropology minor at AIC and was an active member of both the Springfield and Longmeadow Historical Societies. As Longmeadow was preparing for the Bicentennial, Stoler formed an archeological subcommittee of the larger Bicentennial Planning Committee as part of an effort to excavate the remains of some of the original homes of Longmeadow.
When Longmeadow was originally settled, the homes of the settlers were in the Meadows near the Connecticut River and it was only later, after the 1695 flood, that the settlement moved up to where the green is today. By researching old maps and comparing them to more recent maps of the Connecticut River shoreline, town engineer Robert T. Bitters believed he had found the spot where the homesite of one of the earliest English residents, Benjamin Cooley, had been. Stoler and the archeological committee decided to investigate and aimed to try to find the foundation of Cooley’s house. They planned to display any artifacts they found in the Storrs’ house as part of the Bicentennial celebration.
On May 10, 1974, the committee began searching for the foundation of the Cooley house. Later that summer, Stoler reported to The Springfield Republican that her team had made some interesting discoveries. While digging, they unearthed stones that were part of the Old Bay Path cattle trail which ran from Boston to Springfield and then down through Longmeadow to Hartford. Additionally, they found 17th-century brick remnants which were later determined to be part of Cooley’s house. After their bicentennial exposition, the artifacts were remitted to the state for storage and safekeeping.
Stoler with some artifacts from the dig she led. Credit Springfield Republican
Since Stoler’s dig, there have not been any large-scale, organized archaeological excavations in the Meadows. And while a 1988 “Plan for Historic Preservation” commissioned by the Historic District Commission and the Historical Society recommended that there be an archaeological survey conducted of the area, it does not appear that was ever completed. While there are no plans currently, it would be fascinating to know what a new survey by professional archaeologists trained in the latest techniques and having the benefit of the most current technologies might be able to learn and share about the earliest history of communities living and working on the banks of the Connecticut River in what is now known as Longmeadow.
-Contributed by Tim Casey, Longmeadow Historical Society Board Member (Special thanks to Michael Baick for getting me started on the subject and Stebbins Board, Friends of Conte, and the Allen Bird Club for their assistance with my research.)
Originally published June 9, 2022
Goldapar, Danielle. “Class Notes.” Lucent Magazine 6, no. 1, 2013.
Longmeadow, Massachusetts, Katherine M Greenleese, and Katherine L Kottaridis, Longmeadow Massachusetts: A Plan for Historic Preservation § (1988)
Moriarty, Thomas. “Digging History - Literally.” Springfield Sunday Republican, August 18, 1974.
O’Brien, Ruth. “Digs Lead to the Old Bay Path.” Springfield Sunday Republican, October 12, 1974.
Springfield Sunday Republican, 5 October 1969, "Naturalists Dig into Past at Stebbins Reservation", GenealogyBank.com
Union-News (Springfield, Massachusetts) 18 January 2003, obit for Margaret A. Stoler, GenealogyBank.com
Washington D. C, and Various Persons, 1880 US Census § (1880).