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The mystery of the moving headstones

The headstone of Native American Thomas Smith - and that of his brother - were found leaning on a tree. The headstone of Native American Thomas Smith - and that of his brother - were found leaning on a tree. (Jean Douillette)
By Christine Legere
Globe Correspondent / February 5, 2009
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Sometime in the last 50 years, the gravestones of two Native American brothers were moved from a burial ground near Lakeville's Assawompsett Pond, probably so someone could make money off the property.

Several questions about the relocation of the gravestones, which are now under the safekeeping of the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe, will most likely remain a mystery. But everyone involved agrees that the issue now is making amends to the tribe for the violation of the final resting place of William and Thomas Smith.

The Smiths, direct descendents of Massasoit, lived in an area known as Betty's Neck near the Assawompsett shore. Thomas died in 1872 and William followed him in 1875. Their graves were marked with European-style head and foot stones, a rarity in an era when Indian graves were usually marked by fieldstones.

"They are probably the first," said local historian Kenneth Leonard.

For some time, the gravestones could be seen leaning against a tree in a swampy section of the town forest. They had been there since at least 2000, when author Jean Douillette photographed them for her book on cemetery inscriptions.

Last summer, a couple of out-of-towners approached the Lakeville Cemetery Commission looking for the stones, after seeing them in Douillette's book. The author then took Leonard and cemetery commissioner Kenneth Upham to see the stones.

"They were very close to a wetland, which doesn't work, and they were facing north, which doesn't work," Leonard said of their location. Native people always buried their dead on the southwest side of their burial mounds.

Maps published in the 1950s and 1960s show the original Smith grave locations, more than a quarter of a mile from the swampy area where they were recently found.

Three gravel companies dug out the Nachaomet Road site during the mid- to late 1900s, and Leonard believes the mound where the Smiths were buried survived that work. He thinks the mound was partially destroyed during construction of the Nachaomet housing development about a decade ago, and that the Smiths' bodies are in what is now a resident's yard.

"I briefed the woman who owns the home," Leonard said. "But for this woman's privacy, you can't put a grave marker on her front lawn."

Local developer Gene Bartlett, who worked with Joe Malloch of Malloch Construction of Berkley on the housing development, said the entire property was disrupted long before the houses were built. Bartlett and Malloch said they never saw any gravestones or unearthed any bones there.

Darrell Wixom, a descendent of the Smiths and a historical consultant to the Wampanoag tribe, used to visit the Smith graves when he was a child. "I don't remember exactly where they were, but I do know they weren't leaning against some tree," he said.

By the time Wixom saw the stones last year, one of the footstones was missing. Wixom took the two headstones and the remaining footstone back to Mashpee, the headquarters of the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe.

"This was intentional," Wixom said of the relocation of the burial stones. "We have been disrespected since the arrival of the Europeans, and we are still disrespected today."

Brian Reynolds, chairman of the Lakeville Historical Commission and president of the Lakeville Historical Society, said the cemetery commissioner in 1980 had told him a gravel company had moved the stones. "If you asked me 30 years ago where the Smith stones were, I would have said leaning up against a tree," Reynolds said.

Reynolds has a photo of the stones in their swampy location. The photo is in an album of pictures and news articles kept by the Historical Society and all dating to the 1970s.

"The problem with Lakeville is there are bones everywhere," Leonard said. "I know contractors who have kept bones in their closets so they wouldn't get caught, and the Massachusetts Historical Commission is strictly against disclosing where the sacred sites are" because of the fear of looters.

"I think all of Lakeville is important archeologically to the Native Americans," Reynolds said. "This isn't just about Nachaomet Road. This is a townwide issue."

Reynolds said the town has never provided funding for preservation efforts, and preventing future disruption of burial mounds or other ancient sites will require a professional archeological survey of the town.

Meanwhile, Upham said he hopes the Wampanoag will accept the town's suggestion of setting aside part of the town forest for the tribe, so the stones can be relocated there.

"This is a very serious matter," Upham said. "Whatever they suggest to us, we'll have to look at it and see if it's feasible." He doesn't expect to get a response from the tribe until sometime this spring.

Christine Legere can be reached at christinelegere@yahoo.com.

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