Wednesday, May 9, 2012

The Last of the Bird People

An excerpt from my forthcoming novel, published June 2012

The Last of the Bird People


by Terilla Brown

The Disappearance of Minor Randall

This book is an explanation of the abrupt and mysterious disappearance of the former Harvard anthropologist Minor Randall, an affair that caused a stir in academic circles in the late 1920s. It also recounts, among other things, what appears to have been a violent confrontation between a roving band of itinerant people and a local vigilante group in South Florida, an event. which, I believe, must have been covered up by authorities at the time.

The discovery of the evidence for all this came about quite by accident.

In the late 1990s, I was doing research for Dr. Lawrence Millman at Harvard’s Peabody Museum on the survival of an ancient ceremony involving a ritual “bear language” that had been used by the Innu of Labrador. While I was there, I ran across a file concerning an otherwise obscure associate professor named Minor Randall, who worked in the department of anthropology and had apparently gone missing in the late summer of 1928, shortly after he was dismissed from the university. Included in the file was a seemingly irrelevant typescript of a legal deposition given at a pre-trial hearing at the Everglades City Court House in Florida, during the last weeks of May in l929. It was not obvious, at first, why this document should have been associated with Professor Randall.

The hearing was connected to some sort of conflict that had occurred earlier in the month on the Tamiami Trail involving a posse or a vigilante group and a band of people, possibly gypsies, whom the posse had been searching for. Exactly what had happened was unclear, but it was obvious that there had been an armed encounter between the posse and the purported “tribe”, which had been moving southward through the interior of the Florida Everglades, apparently living off the land.

The story was implausible, containing as it did, several incongruous situations and events, and I began searching through other records in the file to see if I could find out why the deposition was included in the folder. After a little more digging I discovered other papers — mainly internal memos from people in the department —that indicated that Minor Randall may have been involved in the Florida incident.

One of the most interesting — and unlikely — leads came from a series of news stories concerning a primitive “tribe” of people in the Swift River Valley in central Massachusetts. In the late winter of 1856, newspapers all across southern New England were reporting the presence of a traveling band of people described in some accounts as gypsies. The group first appeared around Bourne, at the western end of Cape Cod. They were seen again north of Kingston, Rhode Island and they spent a week or two around the Great Swamp, within the town of Easton, in Massachusetts. By late spring, they turned north and entered the Swift River Valley, which, before it was flooded in the 1940s to create the Quabbin Reservoir, was a vast empty quarter of wooded hills, streams, and swampy bottom lands.

The most complete accounts of this so-called band of gypsies appeared in the Daily Eagle, the paper of the now extinct town of Greenwich, which was dismantled to make way for the reservoir. According the story, which appeared in the 1857 August 27th edition, two different local farmers happened upon the group in two different locations.

There were about twenty people of all ages in the band, including babies, children, and old people. One family had a horse and wagon, but most were on foot and were accompanied by a large pack of mongrel dogs. Many of the people, men and women alike, had shoulder-length hair and were dressed in motley, the women in long skirts and blouses, the men in patched trousers and collarless shirts. The children were barefooted and wore loose smocks, “much soiled” as the article reported. There were said to be four or five “colored” families, and there was also, the newspaper said, a mix of Indians and whites — a blond woman with a group of tow-headed children, a few red-haired Irish, Azorean Portuguese, and couple of Yankee farmers and their families. The group was led by a gypsy “queen”, a large woman in a florid turban who answered most of the questions put to her in broken English. The others held back and pretended not to understand the questions.

One of the local land owners had discovered the band camped in his woodlot and asked them to move on, which they did without argument or explanation. Who they were, where they had come from and where they were going, was never detailed in any of the official records or newspaper accounts, and by the autumn, all reports ceased.

The last shred of evidence of the wandering band appeared nearly seventy-five years later, in 1905, also in the Daily Eagle. A short notice in the November 16th edition claimed that two hunters had discovered a young girl, a “wild child”, sleeping in a rock cranny on Soapstone Hill, far from any human habitation. The family of one of the hunters took her in and was feeding her, the story said. No further information appeared in the records.

Then suddenly, starting in September 19287, evidence of the band reappeared. Clipped together in a separate sheaf, I found more stories that threw light on the situation, including the critical piece of verification — the transcript of the deposition, which contained the curious story related by the deposed, the man who called himself Jon Barking Fox.

Once I pieced together all these documents, I determined that Randall must have allowed himself to be “captured” by this roving mixed-race band, which by that time — the late 1920s — had been living incognito for generations in the Swift River Valley.

Situations of this sort were actually not an uncommon phenomenon, even in the mid twentieth century. Similar social groups, such as the Jackson Whites in the valleys of the Ramapo Mountains, New York, or the so-called “Raggies”, who lived on Mount Riga in Connecticut were also surviving in isolated, self-contained situations. Most noteworthy as far as this story is concerned, was a renegade band of Seminole Indians who had cut off all contact with white society in the early 1900s and had moved into the inaccessible regions of the southern Everglades, supporting themselves by hunting and plant gathering.

The Swift River Valley people had also reverted to an earlier tradition and were also surviving by hunting and plant gathering, which is what originally interested the anthropologist, Minor Randall. They had also reversed traditional sexual roles. The women hunted, and the men were responsible for food preparation and child care, even going so far as to suffer birth pangs while their wives were delivering.

Although there appears to have been some conflict within the tribe, the Bird People, as they called themselves, were peaceable, retiring, and non-violent. Their main objective was to remain unnoticed by settled American society. In fact, they believed that the “Wasichu” — their name for anyone not of their band — could not see what did not move. They thought they were invisible. Had it not been for the development of the massive reservoir project in their valley, they might have gone unnoticed for several more generations, although eventually modernization would have caught up with them.

Or maybe not. Unlike the other isolated societies, the Bird People were nomadic, they moved — silently, stealthily, and constantly — destroying all evidence of their existence before leaving one hunting camp for another.


I learned that Minor Randall was a former student and protégé of the pioneering American anthropologist Franz Boas at Columbia University, who was a bit of a maverick in the field of cultural anthropology. Randall was also an associate of other luminaries, such as Margaret Meade and Ruth Benedict, and the Eastern Woodland Indian specialist Frank Speck, who was also a student of Boas at Columbia. After graduation, Randall worked as an assistant for Boas doing field studies on extant Woodland cultures, mainly a band of Seminoles in south Florida that had cut off contact with the local whites.

Randall apparently fell into a controversy with his department head at Harvard because of his involvement with events surrounding the construction of the Quabbin Reservoir in the Swift River Valley.

The area around the valley was one of the last extant wild tracts of land in the Northeast, dotted with isolated farms, a few towns, and thick, unpeopled forests in between.

It was partly because of the sparse human occupation in the area that the Boston water companies selected the site for construction of the reservoir. In May of 19287, the town of Prescott was disbanded and officially struck from the records of cities and towns of Massachusetts in order to begin the work of clearing the region for the reservoir. Over the next five years, all seven towns in the Swift River Valley were abandoned and razed; 7,500 bodies were disinterred from the local graveyards; trees were cleared from the valley floor, and the Swift River and three other streams in the valley were dammed to back up the waters to create the reservoir.

In the early autumn of 1928, a project surveyor working in the Rattlesnake Brook area in the northern valley found a homemade arrow with a chipped quartz point not far from a hemlock grove on the north-facing slope near the brook. He turned the arrowhead over to his crew boss, who passed it up the chain of command. After some delays in the upper echelon, it was delivered to Minor Randall for analysis.

The Rattlesnake Brook Point, as it came to be called, was a mystifying object. For one thing it was related to projectile points used by Pokanoket tribe in the Cape Cod region during the Contact Period, in the seventeenth century. But it had a number of anomalies which confused Randall, not the least of which was the fact that it was attached to a freshly-stripped hickorywood arrow shaft and was fletched with the feathers of a red-tailed hawk. It was clearly the work of some contemporary individual who had made a lot of arrowheads and knew how to knap stone.

Randall was sufficiently inspired by the workmanship in the arrowhead to do more research. He spent several weeks hiking in the remote, as yet unsurveyed sections of the valley, searching for more artifacts. At the end of this period, he discovered a deerskin cap decorated with grouse feathers. Later that fall, in the mud beside Rattlesnake Brook, he found the barefooted print of a child. He subsequently came to believe that there was a group of aboriginal people living somewhere in the valley.

It was at this point that Randallhe got himself into trouble.

He took the information to his department head and asked his superior to join him in a campaign to have the area declared a sanctuary, or at least declared off limits, until they could find out who it was who was living in the valley. Randall's superior not only refused his request, he covered up the evidence and, after some further squabbling — much of which appears to have been related to the recalcitrant nature of Minor Randall himself — began proceedings to have Randall taken off the project. Ultimately he was removed from his teaching position.

This act only served to encourage the ambitious young anthropologist. There appears to have been some more wrangling between Randall and the Harvard officials, and then, in the summer of 1928, without telling anyone where he was headed, and armed with notebooks, trinkets, and enough food and gear for the next three months, Randall set up camp in one of the wildest as yet unsurveyed sections in the northern end of the valley. In the autumn, most of his gear was found by construction workers on the Quabbin project.

He himself was not seen again.

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