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History, preserved in sturdy cast iron

Eighty years ago, what did we want to remember about Massachusetts?

Robert Briere first remembers seeing the sign as a teenager in Sturbridge in the 1940s. Eight feet tall, it bore witness in bold capital letters to TANTIUSQUES, a local graphite deposit “valued by Indians for face paint, and by the white men for pencils.”

Sometime in the intervening years, Briere, a rural mail carrier, noticed that the sign had vanished. After retiring in 1989, now the president of his local historical society, he decided to investigate.

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The state is scattered with historical markers like the one Briere had his eye on — sturdily constructed, painted black on aluminum, and prominently featuring the Commonwealth’s coat of arms. Instantly recognizable to most people in Massachusetts, they stand outside town greens, by cemeteries, on the sites of old battles or long-vanished mills.

Some 275 markers were erected in 1930 to mark the state’s 300th birthday. They commemorate “places which played a leading part in the history of the colony,” according to the official catalog issued at the time by the Massachusetts Bay Colony Tercentenary Commission. Armed with the catalog, Briere and his wife criss-crossed the Commonwealth, building a photo album of the markers that remained — and a long list of those that were missing or damaged. The “Tantiusques” marker was eventually found in nearby brush, cleaned up, and returned to its position. Another turned up in a warehouse. Many had just disappeared.

Today Briere is part of a small but passionate group of history buffs trying to restore the full series of markers. Russell Bixby, a retired state medical auditor living in Bernardston, is contributing to Briere’s effort by recording GPS coordinates for the 144 or so markers remaining in place. He and others upload photos and descriptions to HMDB.org, an online database of historical markers. Briere’s state representative, Todd Smola, Republican of Palmer, has filed a bill calling on the Massachusetts Department of Transportation to dedicate funds to restoring the markers and casting replacements for the missing ones.

Beyond their value in noting historical moments, it’s possible to see the markers as a kind of history themselves — a standing museum of how the state saw its own past in the 1930s. They paint a vivid picture of the Puritan settlement of Massachusetts: a group of English religious emigres pressing their way into a landscape that they found forbidding and, in many cases, already occupied. Signs record the building of towns, homes, pathways, canals, factories, and bridges. Dozens of markers commemorate bloody scenes in which Puritans and Indians battled. They tell of over 100 settlers violently killed; the native deaths mentioned, meanwhile, number in the single digits — one of them killed in Middleborough for “making insulting gestures” near an English fort. They convey an us-versus-them version of American settlement that has largely disappeared from modern history books.

But they’re also a record of something else, as it turns out: one man’s vision of the Puritans. The man who revised and edited of the text of the markers — and whose name appears on the title page of the book published by the Tercentenary Commission — is Samuel Eliot Morison, the era’s preeminent historian of Colonial New England.

An eccentric Brahmin known for riding a horse from his home in Beacon Hill to the classes he taught at Harvard, Morison believed history should be read by nonacademics, and his works were both widely enjoyed by the public and lauded by his fellow historians. In the early 1930s, he was in the midst of a passionate campaign to rehabilitate the public reputation of Puritans. In writings like 1931’s “Those Misunderstood Puritans,” he dismissed the stereotype of the first settlers as stuffy, tight-lipped teetotalers, and instead emphasized their work ethic and public-spiritedness.

In keeping with Morison’s historical writing, the Tercentenary markers downplay the Puritans’ religion, and instead put forward a broad-shouldered portrait of the settlers as literate community builders, industrialists, and pathmakers. Morison opened historians’ eyes to a new way of viewing the Puritans, though his quest to shift the public’s perceptions was less successful: Puritanism stands today, as it did in 1930, for narrow-mindedness.

To Briere, the important thing is the history, and not the historian. Though the bill, H.950, has been languishing in the Joint Committee on Transportation since January, he’s eager to see the full series of markers restored to the state’s byways. “There’s so much history in these,” he says. “That’s why I think new ones should be cast.”

Chris Marstall is the creative technologist at The Boston Globe. E-mail him at cmarstall@globe.com.

Correction: Because of an editing error, the original headline on this story incorrectly described the material from which the markers are made. They are made from cast iron.

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