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Quincy’s ‘History Girls’ get parkland recognized as Native American site

The History Girls (from left): Colleen Connor, Eve Anderson, Michaela O’Gara-Pratt, Abigail Kraunelis, Grace Higgins and Mackenzie Maguire.

Debee Tlumacki for The Boston Globe

Ren Green, sachem for the Massachusett tribe, presented a medicine shield during the dedication of Passanageset Park at Broad Meadows last month.

QUINCY — It all began as a typical homework assignment in seventh grade. A teacher posed the question: “If students from New Bedford came to visit Quincy, which two historic sites would you want them to know about?” After picking two points of interest, the students would make two tourism posters promoting those places.There was one catch: The sites could not be related to president John Adams or his family.

Searching for ideas, Michaela O’Gara-Pratt opened a book titled “Quincy’s Legacy” by H. Hobart Holly, and began reading the first chapter, which mentioned a place called Passanageset Knoll. It was once home of Chickatawbut, leader of the Massachusett tribe, and it was just a few steps from her school. The student’s first thought was: “Why haven’t I heard about this?”

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But she wasn’t alone; no one she asked seemed to know about it.

And thus began O’Gara-Pratt’s mission to research and spread the word about the important Native American landmark. Joining her were five of her classmates at Broad Meadows Middle School — Eve Anderson,  Colleen Connor,  Grace Higgins,  Abigail Kraunelis, and Mackenzie Maguire — and collectively they became known around school as the “History Girls.” For more than a year, they worked collaboratively to get the piece of land next to their school recognized as a Native American historical site, a goal that became a reality on June 24 when city officials celebrated the official opening of Passanageset Park at Broad Meadows Marsh.

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“I’ve been teaching there for [32] years, and I had no idea it was a historic site until Michaela started doing her research,” said Ron Adams, the English teacher who assigned the project in September 2013.

Four signs explaining the history and ecology of the parkland will be installed this summer, said Adams, with information from the girls’ research. “It was good detective work,” he said. “They did a great job.”

For the six girls, who will enter ninth grade this fall, it was both a victory and a civics lesson they will never forget. For months, they met regularly before school. They scoured books, newspapers, and the Internet for information, and interviewed every expert they could find. They met and communicated with members of the Massachusett tribe, the Quincy Historical Society, and the state archeologist, and dealt with every level of government imaginable — from the Quincy School Committee to the mayor’s office, the city’s park department, the Army Corps of Engineers, and other state and federal agencies.

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They also found that important Native American artifacts were unearthed in nearby Caddy Park in 1999, but they had been taken out of state and were not accessible. Those artifacts are now in Colorado.

What started out as homework had grown into something much bigger, and it had taken the students much longer to complete the task than they expected.

“I’ve learned patience from this,” said Anderson. “Don’t give up.”

In January, O’Gara-Pratt submitted the name “Passanageset Park at Broad Meadows Marsh” to the US Board on Geographic Names. In May, she received a response: The name was now official.

The dedication ceremony was attended by Mayor Thomas Koch of Quincy and other city officials, as well as members of several tribes, including Ren Green, medicine sachem for the Massachusett at Ponkapoag.

Green, a resident of Braintree who had worked with the girls since last year, described them as a “rare group of people.”

“They got in touch with the [Massachusett] tribe when they discovered there was one,” she said, with a chuckle.

Green said she had always known that Chickatawbut once lived at Moswetuset Hummock, a small hill off East Squantum Street in North Quincy, but she was not aware of the significance of Passanageset Knoll.

“I hadn’t been there before,” she said. “I had no idea” before the History Girls shared what they had learned from their research — that Passanageset had also been Chickatawbut’s seasonal home. After a plague killed many of the Massachusett between 1616 and 1619, Chickatawbut moved from Passanageset Knoll to Moswetuset.

Green consulted with her tribe, reviewed the girls’ research, and ultimately came to the same conclusion. “They’re absolutely right,” she said. “It was a discovery for us as well. . . . We didn’t know about Passanageset.”

The History Girls are not done yet. Next on O’Gara-Pratt’s to-do list is incorporating Passanageset Knoll into the Quincy schools curriculum and getting the Caddy Park artifacts returned to Massachusetts.

Daniel V. Gilbert, principal of Broad Meadows Middle School, supports the idea of bringing Passanageset Knoll into the classroom. He plans to meet with Madeline Roy, the Quincy schools senior coordinator for middle-school curriculum and programs, over the summer to devise a plan to include Passanageset Knoll in the curriculum, most likely in the seventh grade, so students can learn about the site.

Gilbert applauded the History Girls for their efforts. “They’re amazing,” he said.

Margo Brooks, the researcher who helped excavate Caddy Park in 1999, said in a phone interview that the artifacts taken to Colorado will be returned to Massachusetts “in a month or two.”

Emily Sweeney can be reached at esweeney@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @emilysweeney.
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