New Plans For Library Aim To Avoid Native American Burial Ground
By BRITTANY FELDOTT
A marble stone marks the site of an ancient Wampanoag burial ground behind the North Falmouth library, declaring “Indian Cemetery, Erected by the Park Commissioners of the Town of Falmouth, 1924.”
An archaeological survey conducted last year confirmed the likely existence of 100 or more Native American graves in the Francis A. Nye Memorial Park in North Falmouth, with burials possibly extending beyond known cemetery borders and onto North Falmouth library grounds. In response, the Falmouth Public Library has scrapped plans to renovate and expand the North Falmouth satellite library at its existing location at 6 Chester Street, which abuts the burial ground.
Instead, library trustees and staff are currently developing plans to construct a completely new building at a less archaeologically sensitive location on the same property.
The results of a $40,000 feasibility study to identify a new location and produce architectural plans for the proposed building are due to the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners by the end of this month, Library Board of Trustees Chairman Lysbeth A. Abrams said last week.
A library building committee, headed by library director Linda E. Collins, launched the feasibility study about two months ago with project architect Stephen Hale of Boston.
The library has been developing plans to renovate the North Falmouth building for several years. In 2014, it received a $38,860 planning and design grant from the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners to improve the North Falmouth library to better meet local needs.
When library staff and trustees first began planning for the renovations under previous director Leslie A. Morrissey, however, they did not know the significance or full history of the burial site.
The supposed burial ground is located directly behind the existing library building, on a grassy knoll overlooking Cedar Lake. A marble marker is the only obvious indication that human remains are possibly buried there, inscribed with the words “Indian Cemetery, Erected by the Park Commissioners of the Town of Falmouth, 1924.”
In 2016, neither town hall nor library staff knew for certain whether there were human remains buried at the site, or even whether the cemetery had known boundaries.
At the time, Ms. Morrissey estimated that there could be anywhere between one and 100 bodies buried there. Preservation specialist and Assistant Town Planner Corey B. Pacheco was unsure if the site was even registered with the Massachusetts Historical Commission, since the commission does not list Native American burial grounds as public information.
The Falmouth Planning Board ultimately requested that an archaeological sensitivity assessment be conducted, to prevent any potential impacts on the burial ground.
Public Archaeology Laboratory (PAL) completed an assessment in December of 2016, and reported that multiple historical records and eyewitness accounts suggest that there are at least 100 graves at the burial ground.
The assessment drew input and research from Woods Hole historians Ray Hayes and Jean McCluskey and Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe Deputy Historic Preservation Officer David Weeden. The final report included a historical review of the property using archival documents, a walkover survey of the property and maps showing the likely location and extent of the burial site.
Mr. Weeden reports in the archaeological study that his office did not contain any documentary records on the cemetery.
However, PAL confirmed that the burial ground is in fact recorded in the Massachusetts Historical Commission’s Inventory of the Historic and Archaeological Assets of the Commonwealth. State inventory forms show that avocational archaeologists and local residents have collected artifacts and pottery in that area from the Middle Archaic through Late Woodlands periods, about 8,000 to 450 years before present.
“The background research and MHC file review provides consistent and long-term documentation for the presence of a Native American burial ground on the terrace above Cedar Pond,” the report states.
A significant source clarifying the history of the site was found in an 1886 speech given by General John L. Swift and recorded in a Falmouth bicentennial commemorative book. The speech includes reference to about 100 visible stones within the burial ground, which General Swift said “mark rude graves.”
According to Enterprise archives, the stones were unwittingly destroyed or removed in the early 1900s by workmen who were clearing brush from the area.
The parkland on Chester Street was once owned by Francis Nye and his son Francis Augustus Nye. The PAL study states that multiple historical accounts cite Francis Nye Sr. “as an eyewitness who knew the locations of burials within the cemetery and was alive while the cemetery was still in use for interment.” According to historical accounts, Francis Nye Sr., who died in 1857, could point out to his son where the last Native American had been buried.
However, according to the archaeological assessment, the potential for Native American graves goes beyond the 100 stones that once dotted the grassy area overlooking Cedar Lake.
During a site visit, Dr. Hayes located seven marble boundary markers about 10 to 20 centimeters above ground surface, which are thought to have been installed at the same time as the 1924 marble headstone. The stones outline about a one-acre square of land, which fully encompasses the cleared hilltop area and extends to the Cedar Lake shoreline.
The PAL report states that the marble markers were likely placed to include the visible fieldstones, and possibly provide a buffer of the field site. However, additional markers may have been mistaken for natural deposited stones and not included in the boundaries.
In addition, the report states that it is very likely that above-ground markers were not used to mark graves during the ancient past, and the oldest graves therefore may not be included in the boundaries. Many Native American burial grounds in Southeastern Massachusetts were not bounded or individually marked like typical Euro-American cemeteries prior to the 18th century.
Based on those facts, the PAL report states, the burial ground may extend “well beyond” the identified burial ground.
If present, those unmarked graves would most likely be located to the north and east of the grassy terrace where the ground is at the same elevation above sea level. One of those potential areas is the existing library parking lot.
At one point, the burial ground may also have extended to where four tennis courts currently exist. However, that area was excavated to cut into the hillside and create a roughly 5-foot drop-off. PAL Senior Archaeologist Holly Herbster concluded that if the burial area extended to the tennis courts, any burials would have likely been destroyed during construction.
In addition to the areas that might include human remains—which are considered areas of “high archaeological sensitivity”—the report identifies areas of “moderate archaeological sensitivity” on the property. These are areas where archaeological artifacts may be discovered, possibly stretching back 8,000 years. Some possible finds listed are chipped and ground stone tools; pottery; animal and marine remains; and cultural features such as storage, trash pits or shell middens.
Combining the burial ground and other areas, PAL assessed the majority of the library property north and west of the existing tennis courts as having moderate or high archaeological sensitivity.
Those areas include the wooded areas north of the burial ground and any undisturbed areas surrounding the library building and existing playground.
If construction is to take place in those areas, the PAL assessment recommends conducting an intensive archaeological survey. That would require hand excavation of 50-by-50-centimeter shovel test pits in regular intervals across sensitive portions of the project area.
In response to the archaeological assessment and recommendations, library staff and trustees propose to relocate the proposed project further south on Chester Street and avoid the most sensitive areas.
Library director Ms. Collins is working with Assistant Town Manager Peter Johnson-Staub to complete the building project. Although the library has independent jurisdiction over the library building, the property is owned by the town.
“We are pursuing the other location because we have very good evidence to suggest that there will be fewer burials and fewer remains, as opposed to the old [location],” Mr. Johnson-Staub said.
If an archaeological evaluation of the new site concludes that the potential risks would not prevent the project, Mr. Johnson-Staub said a member of the Wampanoag community would be invited to oversee the property excavation, as well as a paid archaeologist.
“Hopefully what we find doesn’t prevent the project,” he said.
Regardless of where the new library building is sited, Ms. Abrams also said the town will likely investigate the Native American burial ground further.
“They’re going to go ahead with the archaeological reconnaissance anyway, because they suspect something might be there,” she said. “It’s the right thing to do.”
The process to determine if there are, in fact, 100 unmarked graves on the property is even more rigorous than that proposed for the other areas.
The PAL report states that the only way to ensure that unmarked burials are identified is to systematically remove the topsoil with machine-assisted archaeological monitoring across the entire area. The stripping process is designed to expose features of possible artifacts or human remains as soon as they become visible in the subsoil, without impacting them.
The library feasibility study is due to be completed this month, which may set up the library board of trustees to submit an article for April Town Meeting.
The study will evaluate the current needs of the library, what size and sort of structure could be accommodated on the property, surrounding environmental conditions and any relevant zoning issues.
It will also provide the necessary documents to apply for a second grant from the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners. The library plans to submit that grant application in 2022 for funding in 2023, with hopes to begin construction in 2024.
Current plans are to replace the existing 1,750-square-foot building with a new 6,000-square-foot facility. The new building would provide space for multi-use meeting rooms and an independent children’s and young adults’ room.
The future of the existing library building and whether it would be repurposed is still uncertain. Mr. Johnson-Staub said that if the building were torn down, it could possibly be returned to park use and reduce the required land restriction elsewhere.
The 7.5-acre plot of town-owned land that the library sits on is restricted for park use only, which has proved another major hurdle for the project. Expanding the building even an inch beyond the current footprint will require Town Meeting approval, a special act of state legislation and a land swap to replace the park land.