Mathias Spiess - Manchester: Past Places, People
by Anna McGuire
Published May 10, 1967 in The Manchester Evening Herald

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Webmaster's notes: In the early days of the Manchester Historical Society, members wrote articles about the town's past, which were published in The Manchester Evening Herald. Anna McGuire (1900-1979), a Manchester High School English teacher, wrote this article about Mathias Spiess. In September, 1965, when the Society was founded, many members were educators and local business owners. This article was found and copied by Dick Jenkins and transcribed by volunteer Maureen Hevey in 2017. More information about Mathias Spiess is available on the Connecticut State Library website. He lived from 1873 to 1959. � Susan Barlow, webmaster.

Mr. Mathias Spiess, researcher, historian, Indian authority, author, poet, artist, and citizen, gave Manchester residents a valuable heritage. His contributions touched the lives of Manchester people in the past; his bequests continue to enrich present generations.

The town is fortunate that this man, born in Brooklyn, New York, eventually made Manchester his home and became deeply involved in its history and socio-civic life. "The Manchester Evening Herald", in an editorial, said of him, "He became familiar with the historical connotations of every acre of Manchester ground." His energetic enthusiasm for historical research and his public-spiritedness in sharing his findings with others have resulted in a treasury of literature, newspaper articles, paintings, sketches, photographs, charts, maps, trophies, and relics that his adopted town can enjoy and use as a medium for learning.

His work in Manchester involved the raising, buying, and packing of leaf tobacco over a period of more than twenty-five years; it was during his leisure time that he found delight in historical research particularly in the New England Indian aspect. In searching through old records, he became impressed by the injustices and cruelties inflected upon the Red man by the White man. He determined to make this information public. He personally visited Indian home sites his research unearthed, sketched them, photographed them, and recorded the lore associated with them.

Tobacco workers, knowing of his interest, brought him relics they dug up in the fields. Eventually, he accumulated a vast amount of information which he organized in books, newspaper articles, lectures, charts, and maps. He amassed a huge collection of valuable items, all of which he gave to museums, libraries, schools, and historical societies. The Smithsonian Institute, Washington, D.C. and the University of Pennsylvania were recipients of some of his photographs and relics. He refused to sell any article, though he was offered as much as $100 for some items. The results of his diligent efforts were freely given.

Older residents agree with "The Manchester Evening Herald's" appraisal of him. "He was a gentle, studious spirit. With his slight scholar's stoop and white mane, he always seemed, on Main Street, in some kind of preoccupied hurry, perhaps toward a rendezvous with some hitherto undiscovered phase of our yesterdays.

History of Manchester

A valuable source for modern researchers is Mr. Spiess' "History of Manchester," written in collaboration with Mr. Percy W. Bidwell and published in 1924 by the Centennial Committee of the Town of Manchester. As early as 1920, Mr. Spiess wrote the board of selectmen offering to compile, without compensation, this history in connection with Manchester's Centennial Celebration in 1923. This book represents the careful research of more than 25 years. In it, the authors trace the history of Manchester from prehistoric times when odd monsters roamed the land, through the Indian and Colonial periods, the Civil War, the development of education, industries, religion, government, and World War I. The book closes with a complete account of the Centennial Celebration. The committee of retired teachers who wrote the booklet, "This Is Manchester," for third grade school children, found this publication a treasury for the work.

Indian Short Story

A short story, "Wunnee-nee-tunah", the love story of a Connecticut Indian girl, reveals Mr. Spiess' sympathetic understanding of the Indian and the author's desire to share his knowledge with others. A dramatization of the romance was presented at the Bentley School, Manchester, and at William Hall High School, West Hartford, with a cast of local school children. His daughter, Mrs. Madeline Fish, then an art teacher at William Hall, directed the play and supervised the settings and costumes. Cedar trees, wigwams, and campfires created an authentic atmosphere for the setting.

In 1932, at the request of the Historical Publications Committee of Connecticut's Tercentenary Commission, Mr. Spiess wrote a pamphlet entitled "Indian History of Connecticut." Prior to this, he had written for the Connecticut Society of Colonial Dames of America two booklets: "The History of the Podunk Indians" and "Tribal Sketches of Connecticut Indians." When Simsbury, Connecticut, was compiling its history, Mr. Spiess was requested to write the Indian chapter. Deposited with the Connecticut Historical Society and the Connecticut State Library in Hartford is this local author's pamphlet, "The Podunk Indian Villages, Trails, Implements and Traditions."

Indian Poetry

Among Mr. Spiess' poems is one entitled "At the Center Spring Park." After reading the poem, on his next visit to Center Spring Park, the modern skater, fisherman, or tramper, may have a little deeper sense of history. This is the reason for the poet's creation of the lines. The poem follows.

Podunks! Here's the spring, we know it well,
Of which our old traditions tell.
The dashing water, it does not fail,
Your qussaknip on the Podunk trail.
Many suns before the paleface came,
You roam'd through here while hunting game,
In the forest, o'er hill and dale,
And at the spring on the Podunk trail.
Just above where the church now stands,
Your hunters perform'd the Pow-wow dance
While waters were gushing in the vale
Out of the spring on the Podunk trail.
Your voice is silent, war whoops are dead;
Your tribe is gone, there's a park instead.
The waters flow on, murmurs prevail
At the cold spring on the Podunk trail.
  �Twas in this gully the Wangunks lay
To cut off Mohegans on their way.
There were twenty squaws and children frail,
Trapped at the spring on the Podunk trail.
Wunitunah with her lover true,
A pale face victim of laws so blue,
Tried to hide (so said the tale)
At the cold spring on the Podunk trail.
The bailiff followed them to this spot,
But they had fled, so he found them not.
Cupid foiled Justice with her scale
At the cold spring on the Podunk trail.
Speak cold spring, tell of days of yore
Ere settlers came, and of Indian lore.
Would that we could rend the veil
And see the spring on the Podunk trail.

Lures for the Curious

The reader of Mr. Spiess' newspaper articles or viewer of his photographs and sketches finds himself desirous of seeking out fascinating spots mentioned by this historian. Squaw Cave at Bolton Notch is a lure for the curious. This was the home of Winnee-neetanah, a Podunk Indian girl who fell in love with and married Peter Haager, a Dutch sailor boy. A Windsor cemetery is now her grave, her burial ground recorded with the simple inscription, "One Haager."

The Gold Cave at Bolton Notch is another spot to be visited. According to Mr. Spiess, during the American Revolution, a Continental Army paymaster staying at the Woodbridge Tavern was murdered. His drivers, fortunately, rested overnight at Noah Rusk's Tavern near Bolton Notch. The drivers must have expected foul play for they had hidden the paymaster's gold coins for the night in a cave. The drivers safely delivered the gold to Governor Trumbull in Lebanon though their superior had been murdered.

Old Sal's Cave, also called the Stone House, on Box Mountain near Bolton Notch is a curiosity which the historian photographed. Old Sal was a Mohegan Indian woman who married a half-breed named Ganger. Here the two raised a large family. The photographs reveal the kitchen and living rooms of the cave while in the distance, there can be discerned a quartz vein.

Even nearer to Manchester is a spot worth investigating. At Kog's Hill, Manchester Green, are the remnants of Indian fireplaces.

Mr. Spiess's articles concerning early trails leading to and from Manchester seem to urge the modern researcher to start his own investigation. He wants to find for himself traces of ruts made by ox-carts, cellar holes, gray ruins of walls, crumbling evidence of the indispensable grist and saw mills of long ago. One such abandoned road seems particularly enchanting. Solomon Rd. led from Middle Turnpike at the foot of McLean Hill to Tolland Tpke. just west of Buckland. It was a famous "shunpike" used by teamsters to avoid payment of toll after the incorporation of turnpike companies in 1795.

Indian Language

A perusal of this historian's writings reveals his interest in the Indian language and its corruption as early settlers translated it to English. The reader finds himself developing a keen enthusiasm for the intricacies of linguistics as he follows Mr. Spiess' explanations. Just beyond the west boundary line of Manchester is a sandy knoll known today as Squash Corner. The Indian term was squaws-komuk. Long ago, on this knoll there was a "woman's wigwam." To the squaws-komuk came the prospective Indian mother. She brought with her a soft robe and blankets with which to wrap the new-born babe. Here she waited alone for the arrival. She allowed no assistance le(s)t a boy baby might become a weakling if the mother asked for aid. There were taboo signs warning both squaws and braves to keep away. English-speaking people corrupted the beautiful Indian term to Squash Corner.

Just north of this knoll is a section now called Skunk's Misery. The Indians named this spot Sau-kunk-omissak-kiang, a term which signifies a profitable fishing locale where two brooks join. Eventually, this musical expression degenerated into the unpleasant Skunk's Misery.

Squato-nip meaning "fire water" appears to be an appropriate Indian term for the alcoholic beverage introduced to the Red man by the early settlers. According to Mr. Spiess, squato-nip undermined the health and hastened the demoralization of both squaws and braves.

Map of Indian Tribes

This Indian authority researched town records throughout Connecticut and established the major Indian trails in the state. He traveled over every one of them on foot, often through heavily wooded areas collecting information about the location of Indian villages and sachemdoms. From this documented material, Mr. Hayden Griswold constructed a map which was published by the Connecticut Society of the Colonial Dames of America. This organization recognized it as the only authentic map of its kind in Connecticut. The map indicates that the Indians were the originators of many of the present well-paved Connecticut highways.

Invitation to Governor Cross

In 1934, Governor Wilbur Cross, in an address at Wethersfield Tercentenary, speaking of early Connecticut River colonies, made the following statements. "There is no evidence that Adrian Block ever came up the Great River as far as our meadows. The first white man ever to see them was Edward Winslow who at the invitation of the Indian, came into the valley in 1632 with a little company from Plymouth Colony."

Mr. Spiess' research in old Dutch records had revealed the fact that prior to Mr. Winslow's arrival, Adrian Block had ascended the Connecticut River to a fortified Indian village, now South Windsor. In the interest of historical accuracy, he wrote a letter to Governor Cross. He offered to conduct the Governor to the very spot, show him the campfire stones, and drink with him to the sacred memory of the Indians from the tribal spring which still gushes out freshest water. He included in his letter the titles, authors, publishers, and pages of two references the Governor might consult. He referred Mr. Cross to Adrian Block's own map drawn in 1614 on view at the Connecticut State library. Governor Cross gratefully acknowledged the correction, promised to read the references, and hoped to accept the offer of a personal tour at a later date.

Correction of Lowell Thomas

Again in the interest of historical accuracy, Mr. Spiess corrected the radio commentator, Mr. Lowell Thomas, with an amusing result. Among Mr. Spiess' souvenirs is an official card signed by Mr. Thomas, "Grand Giraffe of the Tall Story Club." Inscribed on the card is the legend, "Mathias Spiess, he tells them tall." The commentator gave the local historian the rank of Exalted Ananias of the Tall Story Club for his "devotion to the great American whopper." The incident followed a radio program in 1931 during which Mr. Thomas claimed Podunk, USA was a purely fictitious town. Mr. Spiess sent the noted commentator proof of the existence of the settlement named Podunk in the section which now includes parts of Manchester, East Hartford, and South Windsor.

Fame as a Lecturer

Mr. Spiess was a popular lecturer on New England Indian lore. Local and state schools, clubs, churches, and historical societies enjoyed his illustrated talks. His fame reached beyond Connecticut. He was invited to deliver the oration at the unveiling of a monument at Exeter, Rhode Island, in memory of Miantonome, sachem of a Narragansett tribe. Research had revealed that this Indian chieftain had been unjustly executed at Bolton Notch by early settlers.

Oil Paintings

His oil paintings of Indian life and leaders reveal his versatility of expression and his determination to share his talents with others. He did an oil of Attawanhood, Mohegan sachem who sold the Five Mile Tract (now Manchester) in 1672. This he presented to the Manchester Library Board for display.

Historical Society

As early as 1923, inspired by the historical exhibition on display during Manchester's Centennial, Mr. Spiess urged the formation of a Manchester historical society and the establishment of a permanent home for the safe-keeping of relics of Manchester's past. His plans also included the marking of historic spots and homes. Now after forty years, Manchester Historical Society has been organized with a large and enthusiastic membership. Souvenirs of historical significance are being collected, catalogued, and housed in the basement of Mary Cheney Library. A permanent home is still only a dream. It is Mr. Spiess' list of historically important buildings and locales Manchester Historical Society will use as a basis for proper marking.

Children's Museum

In 1928, Mr. Spiess offered to any school that would establish a children's historical museum his valuable collection of Indian and colonial relics. An editorial in the Manchester Evening Herald spoke of this offer as "the finest manifestation of intelligent public spirit."

Mr. Alfred Howes, superintendent of the Eighth District Schools, and Mr. Thomas Bentley, principal of the Bentley School, accepted the offer. Show cases were constructed in the school carpentry shop, and soon the children became familiar with objects of early Manchester life: beadwork, basketry, hand-woven fabrics, arrowheads, stones, bows and arrows, tomahawks, battle axes, field hoes, moccasins. On display was the jawbone of a squaw with teeth still in perfect condition. The researcher had unearthed this relic in a tribal burying ground in East Windsor.

One curio given to the school museum was a 300-year-old medicine cup brought to America in 1637. It had been fashioned from quassia, a medical and sacred tree of African tribes. It had traveled from the jungles to England to the American wilderness, where it was treasured for its powerful remedial properties. The early settlers believed water drunk from it would never fail to cure. Even after three centuries, the cup retains its bitter wormwood taste.

Mr. Spiess bought for the museum an Indian mortar that had been gouged from a sycamore tree with a documented history dating to 1699. This hollowed utensil was used by the Indian squaw to reduce corn to meal.

Since the establishment of Lutz Junior Museum, many of this man's gifts to children have found a permanent home in this valuable Manchester institution; others have been transferred from Bentley School to Whiton Library.

Research in Germany

The following anecdote is not directly associated with Manchester's history, but it does make residents proud that a local man contributed his talents to a foreign country. Mr. Spiess' enthusiasm for historical research led him to Germany, the homeland of his ancestors.

In 1937, he traveled abroad to investigate a cave he had seen as a child when his father had taken his American-born family to Germany on a visit. Here the researcher found proof that two caves near Fischbach, Germany, had been the homes of pre-historic man. He also discovered the ruins of crombecks and mounds, the graves of old German tribal chiefs. He gave Dr. Sprater, curator of the Speyer Historical Museum, a detailed report of his findings. According to Dr. Sprater, these caves were the first to be discovered in the Palatinate, the German home of pre-historic man. Inspired by Mr. Spiess' work, the curator continued excavations in this region of Germany.

Civic Consciousness

History was not Mr. Spiess' only interest. This man's civic and social consciousness led him into local activities of a public nature. This man's civic and social consciousness led him into local activities of a public nature. He was ever an ardent participant in any Manchester issue that promised fruitful potential for the welfare of residents. He was elected to the Manchester Board of Selectmen, appointed to the Board of Police Commissioners, and named chairman of World War II War Records Committee. He served as secretary and as president of the Manchester Taxpayers League.

In the early half of the twentieth century, he gave his time and energy to the solution of pressing problems that no longer exist in Manchester. In 1913, he urged municipal ownership of an ice plant to ease the shortage of ice and its prohibitive price. In the same year, he advocated the construction of a state hospital in Manchester instead of a state armory. He was convinced that Manchester needed hospital facilities. In 1919, he suggested the incorporation of a commuters' association to purchase jitney buses to provide inexpensive transportation to and from Hartford for 600 Manchester workers. In 1922, he strove for the unification of all fire departments in the interest of economy and efficiency.

In 1923, he acted as chairman of the Historical Committee of Manchester Centennial celebration. In this capacity alone, his aid was of immeasurable dimensions.

During the Depression, he attempted to find dignified avenues of relief for the many unemployed. In 1932, he worked zealously for the two-payment plan of local taxes to ease the burden of the taxpayer. His interest in Manchester's welfare made him an advocate of new roads and highways, of adequate lighting facilities for outlying districts, and of a safe signal device for the Oakland St. railroad crossing.

Mr. Spiess' son, M. Eugene Spiess, and his daughter, Mrs. Everett E. Fish, have homes on Eastland Drive, a part of the land formerly known as Kog's Hill, the site of Indian dwellings.

At the time of Mr. Spiess' death in 1959, an editorial in the "Manchester Evening Herald� said of him, "His research and his accumulation of fact and detail never ceased; there was, with him, always something new about our yesterdays. This chronicler of our past also had his years of public service, part of it in some actual office, but more of it as a public figure who was a reliable and valuable participant in any civic movement which promised to contribute fruitfully to the future history of his community."

Mr. Mathias Spiess, researcher, historian, Indian authority, author, poet, artist, and citizen has bequeathed to Manchester residents a truly valuable heritage.


(Note: The Public Information Committee of the Manchester Historical Society, which has been responsible for the "Manchester: Past Places, People" columns, is grateful for the following additions to earlier columns for this, the last column of the current series.)

Spiess's Vision

Mathias Spiess, Manchester's expert on Indian lore, who was written up in the May 10 column of "Past Places, People," once told the local Rotary Club of two strange experiences he had had.

One night in a dream, an Indian maiden appeared to Mr. Spiess and showed him a spot in which to dig for Indian relics in "the hanging hill of Meriden." Next day, Spiess went to Meriden, located the Hanging Hills and found a brook which led him to the spot seen in the dream. Digging there, he did indeed find many Indian artifacts, many of which are now on display at the Lutz Junior Museum.

In a second phenomenal event, Spiess and two tobacco buyers were driving on a dirt road toward a farm where they were to negotiate with a tobacco farmer. Suddenly a girl, dressed in the fashions of the Civil War period and riding a horse side-saddle, crossed the road and disappeared into the woods. When they spoke to the farmer of the odd sight, he told of a girl who lost her fiancé in the Civil War fighting. She became depressed and one day, while out riding, she failed to return. A search party found her dead in the woods near the place where the tobacco buyers had seen the apparition.