The Commonwealth of Massachusetts is home to numerous cities and towns whose namesakes are of European descent dating back hundreds of years. It makes sense, of course, given that European powers claimed communities up and down the East Coast, with the British concentrating, in part, around New England during its earliest period of colonial settlement. Some of these weird Massachusetts town names, though, have a muddled origin; some have changed over time, as all languages do, while others remain unexplained to this day. Take, for example, the village of Satans Kingdom in Northfield, Massachusetts.
Satans Kingdom is arguably the strangest name of any area in Massachusetts. Consider for a moment that the state is overflowing with place names that are blatantly English (e.g., Gloucester, Leicester, Leominster, Worcester), are currently names of other more prominent places worldwide (e.g., Florida, Peru, Holland, Mt Washington), and are names of local historical figures (e.g., Adams, Hancock, Webster, Lowell, Revere, Winthrop). Others are comically odd (Braintree, Belchertown, Cummington).
You get the idea.
But Satans Kingdom is noticeably different. It injects an air of foreboding, casts a dark mystique over the area, implies the dominion of the devil. So how could Massachusetts name a place so eerie when it’s surrounded by places with names so endearing?
A quick Google search yields just a few results, some redundant. No U.S. Census data for Satans Kingdom currently exists. The Wikipedia page for Satans Kingdom is strikingly bare. Included is an image of River Road, which shows the landscape equally bare. It does mention, though, Satans Kingdom is an unincorporated community in the town of Northfield. This explains the nonexistent census data. But information for Northfield says nothing of Satans Kingdom.
Posted in the body of the page is a short paragraph suggesting its name comes from the notoriously bloody conflicts between European settlers and allied Natives led by the Wampanoags, known as King Philip’s War. King Philip was the adopted moniker by the tribe’s chieftain Metacomet after friendly relations were established between his father Massasoit and the Mayflower Pilgrims.
This explanation is sound but not valid. Europeans and Natives were massacred by each other on multiple occasions from the 1600s through the mid-1700s spanning the Connecticut River Valley. This includes the belligerents of King Philip’s War. Perhaps most infamous was the 1676 engagement between Captain William Turner and a Native force.
Turner led a coalition of Boston, Western Massachusetts, and Connecticut militia to the present-day Montague, MA (in a village known aptly today as Turner’s Falls). Turner marched his 150 or so men from Northampton to the falls and, one early morning in May, led an attack on an unguarded Native encampment. Completely surprised, many fled into the woods to survive. Their wigwams were burned and razed to the ground. Turner may have even felt a surge of victory. Unknown to him, the Natives rallied and attacked Turner guerilla-style, surrounding and descending on him and his men in retreat. In all, Turner, about 40 of his comrades, and some 200 Natives, were slain.
Turner’s fall at Turner’s Falls is just one example of why the area may have come to be known as Satans Kingdom. But Satans Kingdom is located some 10 miles northward up the Connecticut River and as such, this particular battle had no bearing on the naming.
Another explanation for Satans Kingdom is the surrounding wilderness. In 2015, Boston’s ABC affiliate news station WCVB took a trip to Satans Kingdom in search of the etymology. There, a rather goofy reporter interviewed an official from the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries & Wildlife who, without evidence or citation, suggested the name is derived from the treacherous snakes and poisonous plants that inhabit the area.
Watch the video linked above. Needless to say, I was unconvinced.
The story I’d like to believe, but holds even less water involves ghosts, spells, and pirates.
The noted pirate Captain Kidd essentially smuggled himself into Boston in 1699, hoping that with the promise of clemency the charges of piracy against him would be dropped. They weren’t. He was imprisoned in Boston, the present-day intersection of Court, State, and Washington Streets, and after about a year was sent to England where he was tried, found guilty, hanged, and gibbetted for three years.
It’s thought that before he met his demise, Kidd sailed long up the Connecticut to bury his treasure. Legend has it Kidd and his crew somehow managed over three different waterfalls, including Turner’s, until they disembarked on a river island approximately five miles from today’s Massachusetts-Vermont border. Here, a stone’s throw from modern Satans Kingdom, they buried their treasure beneath the corpse of a man they killed whose ghost, they hoped, would haunt the gold until Kidd’s return, if not eternity.
Kidd would spend the first three years of his afterlife locked in a cage hanging over the Thames River, his treasure supposedly hidden undisturbed on the remote Western Mass. island. Locally, folklore became rumor which in turn became likelihood. A man named Abner Field and two associates, at midnight, on a full moon, under the protection of a spell that requires absolute silence, treasure location in hand, made their way to the spot (disappointingly not marked by an X). Working in complete silence, they dug until they struck metal.
“You’ve hit it!” someone yelled excitedly, forgetting for a moment the spell’s one requirement.
“Instantly the chest settled down out of reach; and as instantly the disturbed ghost appeared, flitting around them! And before they can collect their scattered senses, Satan himself–full six feet tall–rises from under the bank, crosses the island…going right through a hay-stack, and plunges into the river with a yell and a splash!”
The men subsequently vowed they had the treasure within reach before the spectre appeared. It’s possible someone was tipped off to the expedition and somehow impersonated the ghost. It’s just as possible the event never occurred at all.
This particular story is fun because it merges pirate legend with local lore. But this is not the origin of Satans Kingdom. As far as my research suggests, nobody has ever connected the village’s name to the Captain Kidd buried treasure story. Maybe I’m on to something?
The most substantiated origin story I found was in an edition of the Village Post out of Gill, MA, dated 1834. Arguably the strangest of the stories, it may hold kernels of truth. The article, though, provides no evidence or citation.
In Northfield, one Mr. Hubbard delivered an impassioned sermon on the sabbath, denouncing the Satan and praying his kingdom on earth be destroyed.
In a bizarre unexplained coincidence at the close of the sermon, the woods across the river from Northfield erupted in fire. After, a bystander is thought to have sarcastically remarked “the good parson’s prayer was being answered–Satan’s kingdom was on fire.” When, whether, and how a fire occured is a mystery.
Perhaps the greatest irony is that the soil within Satans Kingdom, was a fertile agricultural tract. Farmers grew hops there in large quantities and employed many locals to assist in their cultivation.
Today Satans Kingdom is a wildlife management area, popular for hiking and outdoor recreation. It’s hardly demonic. If nothing else, it adds insight to the mindsets of colonial Europeans trying to settle and prosper in a completely foreign land. And it shows the extent to which people will project their inner thoughts and fears on a place because it is home the unknown.
When you muster up the courage, take a stroll through Satans Kingdom. Let me know what you think… if you make it out alive.