Friday, August 10, 2007

Burial grounds pose mounds of trouble to developers - the latest Nipsachuk news

Reader Tim M. sent this:

By ETHAN SHOREY, Valley Breeze Staff Writer
Decision on development to be made by Aug. 17

NORTH SMITHFIELD – With hundreds of Indian burial mounds dotting the 264-acre piece of land off Rankin Path, the situation for developers here is getting more complicated.

Last Thursday's first of two master plan public informational meetings at the Kendall-Dean School drew dozens of residents who say the developer of a proposed 122-unit housing development, Narragansett Improvement, is ignoring hundreds of years of common knowledge in the town, all for a big profit.

They also accuse the developer of planning a "mining operation" on the property.

Members of the community say Narragansett Improvement has a plan to use the potentially largest housing development in town as a cover for the profitability of the land itself, hundreds of thousands of yards of gravel, that would be sold to the state.

Because Narragansett Improvement would be building homes on the site, grading of the gravel would be a legal and profitable venture, residents are speculating.

The argument continued over the presence of hundreds of stone and dirt mounds on the property, one side claiming they were Indian burial mounds, and the other claiming they are from early settlers clearing the land for farming.

"I don't know if anyone can answer that at this point," said Planning Director Michael Phillips, on the question of whether Narragansett Improvement will ever be allowed to build on the property. "State law is pretty clear about not building on (the graves) or within 25 feet of them."

A decision on whether the mounds are indeed burial mounds, thus disallowing the development as currently constituted, must be made by Friday Aug. 17.

The state regulations create yet another hurdle for Narragansett Improvement, and would put at least some of the company's current plans in serious jeopardy, according to Phillips, as it was recently discovered that at least one of the planned roads for the proposed development runs right by a mound.

During last week's meeting, the lawyer for Narragansett Improvement, Michael Kelly, questioned the qualifications of anthropologist Frederick Meli, an artist, archeologist and former professor at URI who said that after many hours of walking on the property, he is convinced the historical evidence for Indian burial grounds is compelling.

After Kelly's questioning, Meli proceeded to read off the many qualifications he had previously summarized for the Planning Board, to which Kelly had no response. Phillips said that the questions over Meli's qualifications, with a master's degree and doctorate in archeology, were unfounded.

"Maybe (Meli) doesn't have extensive experience in New England, but he is certainly qualified in the science of archeology," said Phillips. "He knows what he is talking about."

Along with Kelly and Narragansett Improvement, William Simmons, chair of Brown University's Anthropology Department, has claimed that the mounds could have easily been arranged by European settlers clearing the land for farming.

That, says Donald Gagnon, chair of the North Smithfield Conservation Commission, is "ludicrous."

"There is absolutely no evidence that there was ever any farming activity," he said. "The state has done its own studies and found that you can't grow anything there."

He said the property is full of eskers, or small hills left over from glacier activity, wetlands, boulder fields, and gravel, making farming even today impossible.

Kelly did not return a call seeking answers on why he believes there were once farmers on the land or why he doesn't believe the mounds are graves. A representative from Narragansett Improvement said Kelly should be the one contacted on the matter.

Carlo Mencucci, of Burrillville, said he too has heard the claims of "farmers clearing their land," and doesn't put an ounce of credibility into them. He said growing up he knew all the back woods in the northern half of Rhode Island, and the Indian burial mounds are everywhere, including the proposed site for Rankin Estates in North Smithfield.

"Everyone always knew they were there," he said. "We saw them, we had proper respect for them. They act like they've just discovered them but everyone around here has known they have been there forever."

"Back in the 1800s, everyone respected them," said Gagnon.

Meli has estimated the area off Rankin Path could contain a burial ground covering at least 230 acres. Already, The Wampanoag Indians, led by Chief Wilfred Greene, have said the Rankin Path burial mounds are quite possibly their version of Arlington National Cemetery.

Giving even more credibility to the Conservation Commission's claims of Indian burial mounds, The Rhode Island Historic Cemetery Commission has declared the mounds at Rankin Path to be a historic Indian cemetery from the days of King Philip's War in 1675.

An official study is yet to be completed by Meli to find out exactly how many of the mounds exist on the Rankin Path property, but researchers say they have seen hundreds.

If the extensive study by Meli is completed and it is discovered that it is indeed burial mounds covering the 264 acres, as many believe, it is difficult for many in town to conceive of a profitable development that would still work for Narragansett Improvement, especially with the 25-foot buffer.


Geophile said...

Thank you for posting this.

pwax said...

Note how the idea of burials went from speculation to fact without any intervening information.

Anonymous said...

It never ceases to amaze me that someone like Wm. Simmons, whose book on New England Indians is one of the classics of American Indian studies, could make such an ignorant statment about the cairns being part of field clearing, when the process of colonial field clearing is well known. But supposedly intelligent people have been making ignorant statements about cairns and other Indian stone constructions for years. My feeling is that they're just too damn lazy to learn the truth.


Tim M. said...

There were several reasons they (the experts) believe the piles are not field clearing piles including:

-Piles are located on steep, gravel eskers. "Not farmable even with today's technology"

-Stones on top of the piles including quartz and beach cobbles are not native to the area symbolizing "an offering".


Anonymous said...

Anybody farming that land would have died of stavation, or died while trying to plow the land.