Despite land's link to Native American history, family ready to sell off 110 acres
Despite land's link to Native American history, family ready to sell off 110 acres
NORTH SMITHFIELD - When the news first "broke" that the mounds of rock on Ken Snyzyk's family property could be ceremonial structures or gravestones created by an ancient Native American tribe, Snyzyk found himself giving tours along the backyard trail almost daily.
Snyzyk's 110 acre plot borders the property where a battle over similar, neighboring mounds with developer Narragansett Improvement began, making national news seven years ago. The "discovery," Snyzyk says, prompted visits to his land by town officials, reporters, tribe members, archeologists and historians alike.
"Everyone who needs to look at it has," he said. "This place was crazy for awhile. And then it just died."
And now, Snyzyk and his family want to sell the property.
"None of our kids want it," he said. "We'd like to see it preserved."
It's quiet at the Douglas Pike home these days, save for the family's walks along the trail with their dog, and the occasional visit from members of the Narragansett tribe. The spotlight, it seems, has turned off the issue that led the town into years of litigation over Rankin Estates.
The mounds, around 150 two- to three-foot-high piles of rock, dot the land along a two acre portion deep in the woods on the Snyzyk land. They're surrounded by old rock walls on three sides and remain untouched. The land borders Nipsachuck Hill and swamp, where historians say two battles were fought during the 17th century King Philip's War, a bloody conflict between New England's colonists and the Wampanoag tribe and its allies.
"It's a very, very sensitive area for us," said Doug Harris, ceremonial landscape preservation officer for the Narragansett Tribe.
In North Smithfield the story surrounding the mounds and their somewhat mysterious history has taken several unusual twists.
An archaeologist hired by the town to survey the area in 2007, Frederick Meli, said after walking the property, he'd found the historical evidence that it held Indian burial grounds compelling.
The Rhode Island Advisory Commission on Historic Cemeteries declared the mounds at Rankin Path to be a historic Indian cemetery from the days of King Philip's War in 1675, based in part on Meli's findings.
The town's Planning Board, in turn, denied a proposal by Narragansett Improvement to build a 122-unit housing unit on the adjacent Rankin Estates property. Under state law, local governments must establish a 25-foot perimeter around historic cemeteries or even suspected burial sites.
The developer, however, argued that the stones were actually left by in piles by early European settlers attempting to clear the land for farming or logging.
In 2008, Conservation Commission Chairperson Donald Gagnon unveiled the results of the preliminary archeological studies of the site, stating that remains of what was believed to be a 700-year-old Nipsachuck Indian girl were found there. But when the Narragansett Tribal Preservation Office charged¬?that Meli¬?and North Smithfield Conservation Commission members had "desecrated" an Indian burial grounds to find the bones, Meli posted on a blog stating that the bones were not found to be human. The blog post was later removed, and Meli was discovered not to have completed his doctoral work, although he was a professor at University of Rhode Island.
For Snyzyk, the news of the strange rock piles hardly came as a surprise, although the surrounding controversy did. His property was first purchased by his grandfather and formed the beloved playground of Snyzk's youth, and later, a spot for walks and quiet meditation in adulthood. Stories of its Native American origins, his says, were passed on through the generations.
"He knew the stories back then and he'd tell us when we came in here," Snyzyk said of his grandfather. "But we didn't really know it was that big of a deal until it all came to light and they started doing the research."
The walled-in area were the mounds lie, he says, has always seemed special to him.
"On a summer day, you come here and it's beautiful," he said. "I have a spot where I will go and just listen to everything and it's just so nice. Everybody that comes in here loves it."
Snyzyk says he's had a friendly relationship with the Narragansett tribe since the discovery some eight years ago and members often come to visit.
"We cooperate with everything because we'd like to know as much as we can about it too. It's a special place," Snyzyk said of the area. "Whatever was in there, they built a wall to protect it."
The Douglas Pike property was actually listed for sale for around a month in 2012, but Harris indicated the tribe was interested in purchasing it. Snyzyk took the property off of real estate listings, but he says nothing has happened since.
Now, Snyzyk says, time has run out.
"We're getting older and anything can happen to us and then it's going to end up with our kids and they don't want it," he said. "They don't need to be burdened with the tax bill for this. They don't even come here."
Publisher Tom Ward's Nov. 14 editorial about the sale of a historically significant property in Smithfield inspired him to contact The Breeze.
Harris said his tribe is still interested in purchasing the land and is waiting for federal funding to come through.
"I'm sorry to hear that time has run out with Mr. Snyzyk," said Harris. "I know that he has really been quite patient."
Snyzyk agrees that it's an unfortunate situation.
"We'd like to see them get it, and preserve it, and keep it like it is," he said. But we haven't really sat down to discuss anything like that yet."
Meanwhile, he fears that with no official protection mechanism, the property could be grabbed by a developer with the intent to bulldoze.
"If we list it and they step up and buy it, they can do whatever they want with it," he said.
The National Park Service dedicated $37,000 to a study of the area in 2009, and the first phase of research resulted in publication of Final Technical Report: "the Battles of Nipsachuck: Research and Documentation" in 2011. Rhode Island Historical Preservation & Heritage Commission, Narragansett Indian Tribal Historic Preservation Office and Blackstone Valley Historical Society worked in conjunction on the piece, researched with the purpose of identifying and protecting the Nipsachuck battlefields and associated sites of King Philip's War .
The second phase of the research on the area has yet to be completed, a detail that could be at the heart of the delay surrounding the movement to protect or purchase Snyzyk's property.
"Our office has found no evidence to confirm that the stone piles were burials," said Timothy Ives, an archeologist for RIHPHC.
Researchers, he said, are still trying to figure out significance of the rock piles and have not eliminated the possibility that they were set up by European farmers, The problem, it seems, is that digging below the mounds to uncover remains and other artifacts would disturb the stone structures.
"In the archeological community there's a call for people to get better techniques to evaluate these things," said Ives.
Native Americans, Ives said, did pile stones for ceremonial purposes. But later day farmers also created rock piles to clear land for sheep farming. Such farms in New England were later abandoned by their European settlers as land became abundantly available out west.
Regardless of the rock mounds origins, Ives is quick to point out that the land is historically significant for its connection to the end of King Philip's War.
"It's one of the most important battles in American history and people really don't know much about it," he said.
Ives could not verify if there were any official restrictions on development in the area.
Soon the property will be listed, saving future generations from a plot they see as more of a burden.
"They just don't want to pay the taxes on it," said Snyzyk. "It's got to end with us and we're all in total agreement that we can't leave it to our kids. Our grandparents left it to my parents and they left it us but it stops here. You come in here and you sit and it's nice but you're paying a price for that and we did."
Snyzyk could divide the land and sell off the front lots on the 110 acre land, but that act would make the historic property landlocked and inaccessible.
When Harris comes to visit, the men enjoy walks on along the trail, surrounded by the mysterious rock piles, and Snyzyk believes the Native American descendants have plenty of knowledge of the land's secrets.
"It opens up to the back facing sky," Snyzyk said. "Everything is symbolic and they know what everything means."