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An emerging rock star

Town trying to spotlight site of first New World land deal

Email|Print| Text size + By Paul E. Kandarian
Globe Correspondent / November 25, 2007

EAST BRIDGEWATER - Say Plymouth Rock, especially around Thanksgiving, and it will generate a no-brainer response: It is, as every student knows, where the Pilgrims landed in 1620.

Now say Sachem Rock. The response is probably silence and shrugged shoulders.

Consider Sachem the "other rock."

It can be found some 18 miles northwest of its more famous cousin, and it marks what some say is an equally important spot - the site of the country's first real estate deal.

When the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth, they simply claimed the land for their own; nothing of value changed hands. But when they wanted the land around Sachem Rock, they paid for it.

Three heavy hitters from the already established Plymouth Colony - Myles Standish, Samuel Nash, and Constant Southworth - traveled to Sachem Rock and, on March 23, 1649, transacted the deal with Wampanoag tribal leader Massasoit. The purchase price: Seven coats, nine hatchets, eight hoes, 20 knives, four moose skins, and 10 1/2 yards of cotton.

"It was the Pilgrims' first inland purchase in the New World," said Margaret Alexander, East Bridgewater town historian.

Sachem Rock is a craggy granite outcropping about 150 feet long and 30 feet wide, sticking out of a grassy knoll overlooking sweeping meadows. The purchase extended 7 miles in all four directions. The land afterward became known as Bridgewater and consisted of what would later be known as Bridgewater, East Bridgewater, West Bridgewater, Brockton, and Whitman.

Peter A. Hamilton, an East Bridgewater selectman, is trying to improve Sachem Rock's visibility. His town now owns the 31-acre tract that comprises Sachem Rock Farm. East Bridgewater voters approved the $1 million purchase of the property from the Bannerman family in September 1998.

The property was listed on the National Register of Historic Places last year. A stone marker at the site notes its history.

Hamilton is working with Paul Cripps, executive director of the Plymouth County Development Council, to get the word out about the hidden historic gem in the East Bridgewater woods.

Part of the plan to boost Sachem Rock's profile is to create a map highlighting key historic spots in the area - including the rock - that could be disseminated at visitor centers in Plymouth County and beyond. The intent would be to make East Bridgewater something it currently is not: A tourist destination, though not one likely to attract Plymouth Rock numbers, Hamilton said.

"We're landlocked here, we're not on a major highway, and there's not a lot of business development," said Hamilton, the Board of Selectmen's representative to the development council. "In Plymouth County, tourism is the second-highest revenue generator."

Sachem Rock is fairly well known within this town, but not outside of it, including at the hotbed of all things Pilgrim, Plimoth Plantation. A call to Wampanoag experts there revealed little information about Sachem Rock, despite the fact that, according to history accounts, Wampanoag tribal leaders regularly met there.

"A lot of times those gathering places have historic or spiritual significance," said Jonathan Perry, assistant program manager of the Wampanoag indigenous program at Plimoth Plantation, in reference to the Sachem Rock site. "Sometimes it was because the magnetic fields in those places were thought to have healing properties . . . but I haven't found anything on that particular area."

That period of history was a tenuous transitional time. Native Americans and Colonists would soon clash on a large scale, said Randy Joseph, Wampanoag education manager at Plimoth Plantation and a Manomet Plymouth Wampanoag himself.

"It was around that period of forced assimilation, when more Europeans came and encroached on the land, when we didn't have a concept for fence or owned property," he said. "So we would go to the courts and say, 'Your pigs are eating our corn and getting into our quahog beds,' and we'd be told, 'Too bad; put up a fence.' But we didn't know what fences were, so we'd end up shooting the pigs and that started the whole process."

One of the bloodiest times in Early American history erupted in 1675-1676 with King Philip's War as Native Americans and Colonists fought; in East Bridgewater, nine homes were burned by the Indians. But Massasoit, also known as Ousamequin, who signed a peace treaty with the Pilgrims on March 22, 1621, kept the peace with the Pilgrims during his tenure, which lasted until his death in 1661.

These days, the Sachem Rock site is often used by the public for picnics, Scout encampments, and the occasional Civil War reenactment. Retired fire chief Peter Winsor volunteers by mowing the paths that cross the sprawling land. Across the Satucket River lies a rambling complex of old mill buildings that once was the Carver Cotton Gin Mill, a leading employer in town in its heyday.

The Sachem Rock property includes a ramshackle house and barn in serious disrepair, neither having been used in more than a decade.

Preliminary plans are to restore the buildings and connect them with another building, all of it to be used as the town's Council on Aging center, which would double as a community center.

It is a peaceful place, one that was held sacred by the Wampanoag at the time, Alexander said. And there just may be a little of its mysticism left yet.

"The story goes that the Bannermans were having a yard sale here, under that beech tree," she said, pointing to the gnarled giant near the house, one that had never produced fruit. "They said two Native American women came here, hugged the tree, and from that year on, it started producing beechnuts." Fact or fiction, it makes for a good story.

And Sachem Rock's story is looking to be shared.

"The Friends of Sachem Rock hold a wonderful fair here every fall, the garden club maintains the flowers, schoolchildren come to learn the history of the place," Alexander said. "This is for all to enjoy."

For more information, visit friendsofsachemrock.com. The group will hold its fifth annual East Bridgewater Holiday House Tour on Dec. 9. The event raises money for the Sachem Rock Farm.

Paul E. Kandarian can be reached at Kandarian@globe.com.

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