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GUEST VIEW: Can Springfield Reckon with Its Colonial Past…& Columbus?…

History is complicated. But can we do better? The Italian-American War Memorial in the South End featuring Columbus. (via Western Mass News)

On August 3, 1492, Christopher Columbus set sail from Spain with high expectations and a nervous crew. After two grueling months spent crossing the Atlantic Ocean, Columbus’s small flotilla made landfall in the Bahamas just off the southern coast of Florida.  

At the time Columbus believed that he had reached Asia, and for the rest of his life, he remained ignorant of the fact that he was the first European in approximately 500 years to set his eyes on the Americas. Despite Columbus’s ignorance, his journey marked a turning point in human history. 

From 1493 onwards, Africans, Asians and Europeans descended on the Americas ushering in a new age of imperialism, colonialism, slavery, global trade and innovation. As Charles C. Mann argues in his book 1493, the exchange of peoples, ideas, micro-organisms, plants and animals initiated by Columbus’s voyage created the world as we know it today. 

For more than a century, Italian-Americans have held Columbus up as a hero to be celebrated yearly on Columbus Day. In Springfield Massachusetts, Columbus is memorialized in a monument to Italian-American war veterans located at the intersection of Main and Locust Streets in the city’s south end. 

Yet, is Columbus really a man worth celebrating? It is true that his actions changed the lives of millions of people around the world — but for many of them, his arrival marked the beginning of a disaster. Take the Taíno people — who once inhabited much of the Caribbean including Cuba, Hispaniola, Jamaica, Puerto Rico and the Bahamas for example.

Many figures in history are controversial, but some figures stand out…or reverberated well beyond their own lifetimes. (via wikipedia)

On Columbus’s first journey to the Americas, he wrote that “They will give all that they do possess for anything that is given to them, exchanging things even for bits of broken crockery,” and that “They were very well built, with very handsome bodies and very good faces….They do not carry arms or know them….They should be good servants.”

On Columbus’s second voyage to the Caribbean, he led a fleet of 17 ships and 1,200 men to the island of Hispaniola, where he quickly established himself and set about subjugating the Taínos he found there. In February 1495, he shipped approximately 500 of them off to Spain, where they were sold into slavery. More than 40% of them died during the crossing. Within 3 years of reaching the Americas, Columbus birthed the trans-Atlantic slave trade. 

Within 50 years, the Taíno population cratered. Falling from approximately two million individuals in 1492 to only a couple thousand by the 1540s’. War, disease, slavery and famine  — all directly or indirectly caused by Columbus’s voyage — took a heavy toll. Yet, the Taíno refused to go extinct. 

Instead, many of them had children with their European tormentors or with the African slaves who were brought in to replace them as laborers. According to one study, as many as 61 percent of Puerto Rico’s modern population possesses Taíno DNA. A vaguely similar story played out over the following decades across much of the rest of Latin America. 

Meanwhile, in Springfield, Massachusetts today, more than a third of the city’s population is Puerto Rican. Given this fact and Columbus’s own history, it is time that the city’s politicians reevaluate Springfield’s relationship with the famous explorer — as well as its own founders.

When William Pynchon moved his fur-trading enterprise to the site of modern Springfield in May 1636, the settlement initially enjoyed a good relationship with the local Native Americans (the Agawam) who were members of the Pocumtuc Tribal Confederacy.  

William Pynchon took a different tack from Columbus, but his son would not always live up to that. (via wikipedia)

Pynchon relied on the native peoples in the region, both as customers for his imported European goods and as a source of coveted beaver furs. Yet, in the space of only four decades, the Pocumtuc became pawns in a chess game that was out of their control. 

Caught between English, French and Dutch merchants, the Pocumtuc were used as proxies to fight a war for dominance over the North American fur trade throughout the 17th century. This war, which cast them and other Algonquian speaking groups against the English-backed Iroquois Confederacy of upstate New York, decimated their population and coupled with European diseases brought their confederacy to the brink of collapse.

This crisis was further exacerbated by the destruction of the local fur trade due to overhunting so that by the 1670s the local Agawam tribe had little left to trade the English but their land. When King Philip’s War broke out early in 1675, they initially maintained a policy of strict neutrality in the conflict. 

Yet, Springfield’s residents led by William Pynchon’s son John Pynchon did not trust their neighbors so they demanded the Agawam send them some hostages and hand over their guns and powder. This pushed the Agawam over the edge. 

According to Eric Schultz and Michael Tougias, authors of King Philip’s War: The History and Legacy of America’s Forgotten Conflict, throughout early fall 1675, the Native Americans quietly allowed dozens of King Philip’s warriors to slip into their fort which once stood near the intersection of Sumner Avenue and Longhill Streets.

On the morning of October 5, hundreds of warriors came pouring out of the fort and descended on Springfield, burning thirty-two houses and twenty-five barns as well as several mills and other unoccupied structures. When they were done, only thirteen houses remained in the center of town. 

Thankfully, few of Springfield’s residents were killed or wounded during the fighting. Yet, the raid was only possible because on October 4, John Pynchon had led the town militia north to Hadley Mass. where they took part in an attack on an Indian village there.

Once the raid was finished, the local Agawam departed from their fort, heading west and north to seek refuge in New Hampshire, New York and Canada. Thus, the cycle of violence, displacement and colonialism unleashed by Christopher Columbus in 1492 played out here in Springfield. 

Sadly, Springfield’s colonial history is not only full of injustices perpetrated against the native peoples but also against enslaved Africans. In fact, the first African American to settle in Springfield was an indentured servant named Peter Swinck, who was indentured first to William and later John Pynchon.

Springfield’s early fort. Not always the best of times for early, often involuntary residents. (via wikipedia)

In time, Swinck earned his freedom and was given some land on which to farm and settle. Yet, many of the Africans who followed Swinck would not be so lucky. Starting in the 1650s, John Pynchon began importing African slaves from abroad. In 1657 he wrote to a John Leonard thanking him for “bringing up [the Connecticut River] my negroes.”

Modern historians believe that Pynchon owned at least five slaves, but he was not alone. According to an article written by Henry Morris in 1879, “slave holding families bore such surnames as Pynchon, Breck, Dwight, Church, Bliss, Chapin, Sikes, Parsons, Warner, and Munn.”

Although chattel slavery as seen in the antebellum south was not common in New England, slavery in Springfield and its environs was still brutal. According to one source, “Jack, a runaway slave from Wethersfield, Connecticut arrived in Springfield in 1681 claiming that his master sometimes beat him with 100 blows. He was imprisoned in Springfield and records show that he was still there at least one year later. In nearby Longmeadow, Massachusetts, Cato, another black slave drowned himself in a well after repeated whippings from his master.”

In another sad instance, one of John Pynchon’s slave women was impregnated by a white man named Cornish. When the woman’s pregnancy became obvious Cornish fled Springfield but Pynchon punished his slave by whipping and fining her for the supposed sexual transgression. 

In light of these facts, it is time for Springfield’s politicians to reevaluate their relationship with the city’s past. From the statue of Samuel Chapin near the city library to the statue of Marco Polo on the Italian Veterans Memorial, too many of Springfield’s public monuments glorify a history that was not glorious. 

Italian-Americans, including my grandfather — Korean War veteran Joseph Aquilino — deserve better. Springfield deserves better. If Springfield’s leaders want to cultivate the city’s diversity as one of its strengths, then they need public monuments that represent all of its people and acknowledge the entirety of its history — not just a whitewashed version of it. 


Michael Lachenmeyer, a graduate of Loyola University in Chicago, is a writer originally from Wilbraham. In 2020, he was an intern-correspondent for Western Mass Politics & Insight.