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Indians at the Post Office

Native Themes in New Deal-Era Murals

Mr. Pynchon and the Settling of Springfield

Mr. Pynchon and the Settling of Springfield by Umberto Romano
Commonwealth of Massachusetts State Office Building, formerly the original Post Office, Springfield, Massachusetts
Image by David Stansbury. Used with the permission of the United States Postal Service®.

Mr. Pynchon and the Settling of Springfield by Umberto Romano
Commonwealth of Massachusetts State Office Building, formerly the original Post Office, Springfield, Massachusetts
Image by David Stansbury. Used with the permission of the United States Postal Service®.

Born in Italy, muralist Umberto Romano became one of the relatively few muralists whose art graces the post office of his childhood house. Umberto Romano was born in Bracigliano, near Salerno, Italy in 1906 and moved to the United States at the age of 9, where he was raised in Springfield, Massachusetts. After attending both Howard Street School and Central High School, Romano completed some of his earliest art training in Springfield in local schools and museums. Romano then attended the American Academy in Rome, where he would later go on to serve as a member of the board and vice president of the design academy from 1967 to 1974. Romano began by painting portraits in classic modern style, including the mother of President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

His later work is described as abstract expressionism, though it retained human expressions and contours, elements that are notable in his murals in the Springfield post office. He went on to paint portraits of such well-known figures as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., President John F. Kennedy, and Albert Einstein. Romano also went on to create a mosaic in the New York City Court. In 1934, Romano became the head of the Wooster Art Museum School, a position he held until 1940, when he took up the headship of the Romano Summer School in East Gloucester, Massachusetts, which he ran for 20 years. In 1937 with the help of several students, Romano completed the installation of six mural panels in the Springfield Main Post Office, a project that was underwritten by the Federal Arts Project. The murals depicted the history of Springfield, and remain in the same building, which is now the Commonwealth of Massachusetts State Office Building, and include a panel titled Mr. Pynchon and the Settling of Springfield. Romano then spent ten years teaching at the National Academy of Design beginning in 1968. Umberto Romano died in New York City in 1982 at the age of 77. His work is held in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Fogg Art Museum in Boston and the Corcoran Gallery and Smithsonian Institution in Washington.

The Mr. Pynchon in Umberto Romano’s mural is William Pynchon, known as the founder of the present-day town of Springfield, Massachusetts. Pynchon was born in Essex, England in 1590 and sailed for North America in 1630, where he became a founder and assistant treasurer of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. In 1635, Pynchon led an expedition to the Connecticut River Valley where he encountered the Pocomtuc or Nipmuc village of Agawam. Impressed with the situation of Agawam and the fertility of the land, Pynchon returned to Boston. In 1636 he led a settlement expedition of English settlers and their livestock, and purchased land from tribal leaders.  Originally called Agawam Plantation, the settlement was renamed Springfield, after Pynchon’s home village in England, in 1640. The Pocomtuc or Nipmuc who lived at Agawam used controlled burns to clear trees from the land near the river. The land that was sold to Pynchon in 1636 was sold for “18 hoes, 18 fathoms of wampum, 18 coats, 18 hatchets and 18 knives.”  The tribe also retained hunting and foraging rights, rights to their existing farmlands, and the right of compensation for corn crops destroyed by English cattle. In 1640, a conflict occurred when Mr. Pynchon refused to buy corn from the Pocomtuc people at what he deemed to be unreasonable prices. Residents of the Connecticut colony were angered by this, as grain had become scarce that year and their cattle were starving. Captain John Mason was sent to insist on the purchase of the corn, and his reportedly aggressive approach led to a deepening distrust of the English by the Pocomtuc. Mason also publicly censured Pynchon for his role in the episode, and as a result, Pynchon and the planters at Agawam voted to remove themselves from the jurisdiction of the Connecticut colony and were then claimed by the Massachusetts Bay colony.  Mr. Pynchon was named magistrate of Agawam, and the settlement was renamed Springfield. In 1641, Pynchon became the first commercial meat packer in the new world, exporting salt pork. In 1651, Springfield was the site of the first witch trial in America when husband and wife Hugh and Mary Parsons accused each other of witchcraft. While both were acquitted of witchcraft, Mrs. Parsons was found guilty of murdering her own child and sentenced to death. At that same meeting of the Massachusetts General Court, Mr. Pynchon was charged with heresy over the publication of his book, The Meritorious Price of Our Redemption, which was inspired by his disillusionment with Puritanism. The book had been published in 1650 and subsequently became the first book to be banned in Boston. Faced with the seizure of his considerable land holdings, Mr. Pynchon signed ownership of his lands over to his son, John, and left the colonies. He returned to England in 1652, where he retired as a wealthy man from his trade in beaver pelts. He died there in 1662.

In 1675, the area around Springfield became embroiled in what was known as King Philip’s War. King Philip was the English name for Metacomet, the son of Massasoit and brother of Wamsutta, who became Grand Sachem of the Wampanoag after Wamsutta’s death in 1662. Originally, the Wampanoag and the English Colonists coexisted in uneasy peace. However, increasing colonial expansion led to escalating tensions.  After visiting the Governor of the Plymouth Colony in 1662, Wamsutta collapsed and died suddenly. In 1675 the situation boiled over upon the killing of the Christianized or “Praying” Indian John Sassamon, a translator and advisor to Metacomet.  After he reportedly informed Plymouth Colony officials that Metacomet was planning Indian attacks on colonial settlements, he was allegedly murdered by three Wampanoag. Three Wampanoag were arrested and hanged. In retaliation, a band of Pokanoket attacked several homesteads in Plymouth Colony on June 20, 1675. The war spread quickly and eventually the Nipmuc, Podunc, Narragansett and Nashaway all fought the New England Confederation and their allies, the Mohegan and Pequot. During the war, an attack was launched on Springfield in which 45 of 60 homes were burned as well as John Pynchon’s grist and sawmills. The town of Springfield remained under siege through the winter of 1675. Today, the hilltop from which the attack on Springfield was launched is known as King Philip's Stockade. All told, nearly 600 Europeans died defending the Massachusetts colony, and nearly 8,000 Indians were killed, enslaved, or made refugees. By the Spring of 1676, after many victories on both sides, the conflict became a war of attrition.  Metacomet was shot and killed in August, 1676, leading to the surrender of the Indian forces. He was beheaded, and his head was displayed on a spike in Plymouth for over 20 years.

Romano is credited with having consulted with local historian Harry Andrews Wright and historical author Esther Forbes to gain as complete a picture as possible of the history of the development of Springfield. This is the first mural in the series, which covers the history of the area from 1636 to 1936. In this particular mural, Romano’s semi-abstract style is visible in the distorted human proportions and confusing sense of depth. Mr. Pynchon stands proudly in the center of the scene, orchestrating the movements of the many different people surrounding him. The scene includes Indian people observing Mr. Pynchon, one in a canoe, and other white settlers, along with their buildings and at least one cow. Pynchon not only stands out as the central figure in the mural, but through Romano’s bold use of color, painting him in a rose-pink suit with a white lace collar and a hat set at a jaunty angle on his head. The Indians in the mural, as is common with many murals from this time period, are wearing very little clothing. In the foreground, an Indian woman sits on the ground, wearing nothing but a baby strapped into a cradle board on her back. Some of her anatomical features appear inflated or distorted to odd proportions with the rest of her. The mural also includes images of suffering, through a man in a yellow shirt whose hands seem bound behind his back, and an image of a person in a set of stocks.   The mural is a mosaic of images, rather than depicting one specific incident at a set point in time. It represents different aspects of the establishment of Springfield. Though the Indian inhabitants of the area are at the forefront of the action, they steadily fade from view throughout the ensuing mural panels, and from the history and landscape of Springfield.

By Meghan A. Navarro


Sources:

City of Springfield, Massachusetts
2013 History and Culture. www3.springfield-ma.gov/cos/history.0.html, accessed October 24, 2013.

Phaneuf, Wayne
2011 Springfield’s 375th: From Puritans to Presidents. Electronic document, www.masslive.com/history/index.ssf/2011/05/springfields_375th_from_puritans_to_presidents.html#incart_hbx, accessed October 23, 2013.

Waymarking.com
2011 History of Springfield Murals - Springfield, MA. www.waymarking.com/waymarks/WMCWME_History_of_Springfield_Murals_Springfield_MA, accessed October 23, 2013.

New York Times
1982 Umberto Romano, Artist Dies. Electronic document, www.nytimes.com/1982/10/01/obituaries/umberto-romano-artist-dies.html, accessed October 22, 2013.

Ranlet, Philip
1988 Another Look at the Causes of King Philip’s War. The New England Quarterly 31(1): 79-100.