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Historical novel images a ‘murky and fascinating’ history

Incorporating 10 years of research, a Putney historian/teacher releases ‘Sackett’

Stuart Strothman will read from Sackett on Saturday, Nov. 17 at 4 p.m., at Village Square Booksellers, 32 The Square, Bellows Falls. For more information about the book, visit sackettbook.com.

PUTNEY—There are stories throughout American history of early settlers’ children being abducted and raised among Native tribes for the rest of their lives. However, some stories are less well-known than others.

Stuart Strothman’s recently published historical novel Sackett tells a lesser-known story of Elizabeth Sackett, a Puritan child abducted at age 5 from Westfield, Mass., and raised among Abenaki Indians. She later married an Abenaki, and their son — known as Sackett — grew up to play a significant role in the history of Putney.

When Strothman, a lover of Colonial history who studied Native American history at SUNY-New Paltz, was co-authoring the 2003 local history Putney: The World’s Best Known Small Town, he came across what he called the “murky and fascinating history” of the early life of his small town.

“I became interested in the namesake of Sackett’s Brook, which runs through town,” he said in an e-mail interview.

“I learned about the native hero Sackett, but my project director wouldn’t let me print that the brook was (or even might have been) named after this French and Indian character, well known to the colonists for his raids,” he said.

Since then, Strothman discovered a historical link, albeit an “unscholarly” one, in a reference published in the 1903 Kathan family history.

“Charles Kathan is widely regarded as the town’s founder, commanding Fort Putney, built in 1753,” Strothman noted.

Strothman said he also discovered in an old Westfield, Mass., history that Sackett was the son of an abducted 5-year-old girl who was raised among the Abenaki.

A decade’s worth of research

One of Strothman’s students at Guilford Central School, where he teaches Middle School grades, who was participating in National Novel-Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) inspired him to begin writing the novel.

“After three years of research, I was inspired by Ella McDaid to write the novel,” he said.

Strothman decided to join her in the worldwide activity, wherein participants attempt to write a full-blown novel in 30 days each November. He wrote about 70 pages of a draft that month.

This proved to be only the beginning as far as the story was concerned. Telling the story with complete historical accuracy required an entire decade’s worth of research into the world of Elizabeth Sackett and the Abenaki people.

“[The total research took] about 10 years,” he said. “Luckily, I am fascinated by all of the material. Any primary-source documents I could find from that period, in the region of western Mass. and Vermont, were very informative and useful.”

Strothman read about 10 firsthand abduction accounts as well as “lots of material from Abenaki linguist/historian Gordon Day.”

Then, “based on my previous readings of history from historians like Colin Calloway and Marjorie Peters, I built the storyline, including numerous specific abduction stories such as the Deerfield raid of 1704, Nehemiah Howe (the real first settler of Putney in 1744), and Susannah Johnson, as well as tidbits from other accounts,” he said.

Strothman was aided in his long story-writing process by Thurmon King, a Sackett historian. All Abenaki language used in the book was “carefully reviewed” by ethnohistorian John Moody at the Winter Center for Indigenous Studies in Norwich, Vt., and Hanover, N.H.

Finding detailed information on the life of Sackett, not to mention his mother (Elizabeth Sackett) herself, was difficult due to the small number of references to either Sackett in historical texts.

“There is only one brief reference to this Sackett as the namesake of the brook (there are no other early Sacketts in Putney), hidden in the Kathan text,” he said.

Few references to Sackett exist, “some buried in French Canadian history texts, others in Abenaki oral history,” Strothman said.

“The Westfield history tidbit is also very old and isolated, previously forgotten except by present-day Sackett family members, and there’s only one specific reference to Sackett in better known American colonial history,” said Strothman, who spoke at a Sackett family reunion in September.

Despite the lack of information on Elizabeth Sackett herself, the abduction and subsequent assimilation into a native tribe was not uncommon for children of Puritan settlers, he said.

“Elizabeth Sackett’s story is fairly typical. There were many abductions, and a common intent among embattled Algonquin people [was] to use this method both to terrorize these Colonial invaders and add to [Native] population,” he said.

The attrition in the native population was approximately 90 percent in all of North and South America by this time, and many abducted colonists, especially children, “went native,” Strothman said.

“For some [abductees], the culture was much more relaxed and attractive than, for example, Puritan culture, and even some adults chose to make this shift,” he added.

Strothman says he wants readers to know not only Elizabeth Sackett’s story, but also the history of Putney’s brook and how the land — and the native people in it — were changed by the “environmental devastation” wrought by the settlers.

“I want people to know that they were really here, with established villages in Westfield (Woronoco), Northfield (Squakheag), Vernon (Fort Hill), and Newbury (Cowass), just to name a few,” he said.

“The settlers wrought environmental devastation on the region, clear-cutting forests for land management, damming fish streams, and ultimately blocking the entire Connecticut River itself (in Turners Falls, Mass., in 1798),” Strothman continued.

Consequently, he said, the settlers stopped “the huge salmon and shad runs forever,” affecting both Turners Falls, Mass., and Bellows Falls, which he described as “hugely important fishing locations for Abenaki people.”

Strothman is currently working on two new projects: one about adolescent counterculture in the seventies and eighties, and another about institutionalized patients in the 1900s.

“I would like to write a novel about adolescent counterculture in the 1970s and 1980s, and also one about people with disabilities who, having grown up in horrible institutions through the 1900s, break out of group homes with the help of sympathetic employees,” he said.

“I have experience with both these topics,” Strothman said. “I have not started either novel as yet.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #178 (Wednesday, November 14, 2012).

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