Marked Territory: Rethinking Massachusetts’ Historical Markers

<a href="">Jaye Glenn</a>
Credit: Jaye Glenn

Marked Territory: Rethinking Massachusetts' Roadside Histories

Reflection by MAPC Arts and Culture Fellow Emma Boast

In 1930, the Massachusetts Bay Colony-Tercentenary Commission erected 275 markers to commemorate the colony’s 300th anniversary. For some, the markers highlight the rich heritage of Massachusetts and local communities,” as MassDOT noted in its 2019 announcement of its plan to restore 20 of the markers. This is not true for everyone. As we reflect on the upheavals of 2020 and look ahead toward 2021, we ought to see these markers in a new light: as evidence of a failure to grapple with our shared past, but also as an opportunity to chart a new path marked by new narratives.

Credit Doug Kerr, Flicker, CC BY-SA 2.0
Credit Doug Kerr, Flicker, CC BY-SA 2.0

The markers are simple: they feature black text on a white background. Each is surrounded by a black frame and is topped with the state seal flanked by two dates: 1630 and 1930. Each marker describes a moment deemed important from the Commonwealth’s colonial history and connects that moment with a specific town or city. Many of these portray the 1600s not as a period of settler encroachment on Native American sovereign lands but rather as an era of undisputed settler sovereignty and Native American aggression. This marker in Hatfield, for example, offers a seemingly simple statement: Before 1670 part of Hadley. Thrice attacked by Indians during King Philip's War.” In its dispassionate tone, the marker decontextualizes this violent episode, uprooting it from the larger story of a war fought on the grounds of Native sovereignty. 

Another of the markers restored by MassDOT in Deerfield reads: 

Indian land called Pocomtuck, settled by men from Dedham in 1671. Attacked by Indians, burnt, and abandoned in 1675. Reoccupied and attacked in 1704 by French and Indians, who took 47 lives, and carried off 112 captives to Canada, of whom 60 were later redeemed.

Credit Jimmy Emerson, DVM (Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
Credit Jimmy Emerson, DVM (Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Much like the Hatfield marker, this one offers a black-and-white account of apparently unjustified attack. But this history is anything but black and white. Places like Deerfield and Hatfield were founded far from the more densely populated early colonial coastal settlements. They marked the vanguard of the budding nation’s frontier and were characterized by fluid boundaries and shifting political alliances. Understandably the colonists’ incursion into new territory created conflict with Native Americans being displaced and dispossessed of their lands. These were contested territories, yet these markers would suggest otherwise. The crisp frame that surrounds each neat narrative marks these historical accounts as bounded, definite, and seemingly beyond dispute. 

A procession of pithy narratives, each enshrined in an indelible physical form, conveyed in a detached tone, and stamped, quite literally, with the state’s seal of approval: these are marks of authority that justify the origins of injustice and legacies of harm that continue today.  

The state seal is no exception. It portrays the disembodied arm of Myles Standish, the first commander of the Plymouth Colony, a man who was known for his ruthless preemptive attacks on Native Americans, holding a sword over the head of a Native American figure in a peaceful stance. Here again, these signs represent the colony’s monopoly on violence. In these markers, violent resistance to colonial expansion is reframed as unprovoked and unjustified, while violence against Indigenous and Native people is portrayed as a justified defense of rightful colonial territory. 

Scattered across the state, these markers punctuate the land with an array of familiar myths: the peaceful “settlement” and transfer of lands, British colonists as innocent victims under constant threat and one-sided attack, Native Americans as abstract historical actors, rather than individuals and members of contemporary communities throughout the state. We know that this is not the full story, but these markers would have us believe that it is. Much like plaques and other similar forms of commemoration, markers literally inscribe stories in place, lending weight and legitimacy to narratives by dint of their physical placement and straightforward assertions: “this happened here,” “she lived here.” This is what makes markers so compelling: they help us understand that we stand on the same ground where others once stood. Yet these very same qualities can also elide the truth. Perhaps the colonial myths that undergird Massachusetts’s identity are so persistent in part because they have acquired a patina of truth that has rendered them practically invisible. 

MassDOT claims that the roadside markers are important, in part, because they inform residents and visitors about “notable events and facts. Yet what if the apparent factuality of these markers was, in fact, the very quality that makes them most in need of scrutiny? 

A reevaluation of these markers requires not only interrogating the myths we have inherited about the colonial era but also understanding the context in which the markers themselves were made. As the decade of the 1930s dawned, white supremacy was ascendent as the country was developing founding myths that could construct a national identity. The early decades of the 20th century saw a wave of xenophobic immigration restrictions intended to limit the movement of those deemed undesirable, particularly immigrants of Asian and Southern and Eastern European descent, and the rise of white nationalism throughout the U.S. Much as the construction of Confederate monuments peaked in the early 1900s amid a violent backlash against the political project of Reconstruction, the making of Massachusetts’s markers can be understood within the context of a national effort to construct a white identity and an entrenchment of racist policies and practices, particularly discriminatory lending and housing policies.  

Like monuments, markers offer accounts and interpretations of what happened in the past as shaped by the prejudices and political motives of the moment in which they were made. Seen in this light, the restoration of the Tercentenary Commission markers to their original condition was a missed opportunity for a reexamination of how we interpret and communicate public memory and how we can make our heritage more inclusive.  

Could the state’s new investment in these markers and recent commitment to reevaluate its official seal and motto be a call for renewed attention to our past and offer an opportunity for a collective retelling of our history to fit our present moment? What if we were to see these physical objects not as “assets” to be saved and preserved but as opportunities to question ourselves, our messages, and our intentions, such as in artist Erin Genia’s recent creative reinterpretation? That the state of Massachusetts devoted public resources to upholding these stories without scrutinizing them, compounding harm done to Indigenous peoples over generations, indicates that there is a pressing need for planners, policymakers, and preservationists to develop new approaches to interpreting, evaluating, and managing historic markers as part of the commemorative landscapeand to do it in collaboration with Indigenous communities. For to ignore these stories and perspectives only perpetuates harmful myths, not to mention the myth that markers are history, rather than just one story we’ve told. 

Corrections: The original version of this blog post incorrectly stated that there were 200 markers erected: there were actually 275. We also referred to a second Deerfield marker that no longer exists. We've edited the text to correct our mistakes.