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Native Indians of New Hampshire



The Indians [1]

Two great Indian linguistic families dominated the eastern United States, the Algonquians and the Iroquoians. The realm of the Algonquians stretched from the Atlantic Ocean to the Great Lakes and beyond, and from the Carolinas to Hudson Bay. Within this area was a small section where the Iroquois ranged and ruled. Although not living in New Hampshire, the Iroquois probably warred in this State against their Algonquian neighbors. The Indians formerly living in the immediate vicinity of Maine and New Hampshire are known generally by the name of Abnaki ("men of the East").

Within the confines of the State were such tribes as the Coosucs, who lived at the junction of the Connecticut and Ammonoosuc Rivers and northward; the Piscataquas, near Dover; the Sokokis, known as Pequawkets on the upper Saco River and as Ossipees around the lake by that name; and the Merrimack River tribes, more often known as the Penacook Confederacy. Members of this Confederacy in New Hampshire were the Nashuas residing along the river by that name, the Souhegans or Natacooks on the Souhegan River, the Amoskeags at Manchester, the Penacooks proper at Concord, and the Winnipesaukees in central New Hampshire. Sometimes included are the Coosucs to the north, the Squamscots at Exeter, the Winnecowets at Hampton, the Piscataquas at Portsmouth, and the Newichawanocks near Rochester. The Amarascoggins had a village on the Androscoggin River at Lewiston, Maine, and presumably roamed the eastern reaches of New Hampshire's north country. The Saint Francis Indians in Canada claimed portions of this area, and ranged in the vicinity. It was to this tribe that most of the New Hampshire Indians ultimately withdrew; for instance, little is heard about the Penacooks as a separate tribe after Queen Anne's War.

Moorehead, eminent chronicler of the "Red Paint People" of Maine, made a survey of the Merrimack Valley in 1931 and reported evidences of this mysterious people in the New Hampshire lake country. The "Red Paint People" represented a pre-Algonquian culture, and there is consider able probability that the Winnipesaukee district was the western outpost of their habitat. Starr King in his classic volume, "The White Hills," deplored the absence of Indian names in the White Mountains, but aboriginal names still cling to the southern part of the State in villages as Penacook, Suncook, and Contoocook; in lakes as Baboosic, Massabesic, and Sunapee; and in streams as Soucook and Piscataquog. With the mountain region is associated the legends of Chocorua, Passaconaway, Wannalancet, and the Great Carbuncle, and in the folklore of other New Hampshire regions the Indians have left their trace.

Indian relics have been found in some quantities in New Hampshire. At least eight communities Nashua, Manchester, Concord, Franklin, The Weirs, Hooksett, Suncook, and Laconia were built on the sites of Indian villages. One of the most interesting of these primitive villages was at The Weirs on Lake Winnipesaukee, where a large weir or fish-trap in the shape of a "W" was built of stone and interwoven with saplings. It was thought that the Indians remained here until 1700. Another fishing village was at the division of the Merrimack into the Pemigewasset and Winnipesaukee Rivers. At this point the shad went to Lake Winnipesaukee and the salmon up the cooler waters of the Pemigewasset. Here (at Franklin) many relics have been found and collected. The remains of an Indian "fort" at Little Bay in Sanbornton existed until well into the nineteenth century; it has been thought that this structure was built as a defense against the Mohawks sometime prior to 1675. Near Ossipee Lake a large Indian burial mound was discovered, where skeletons were uncovered in sitting posture, grouped in circles. Skeletal remains have also been found at Brookline, Hudson, Dover, Sutton, Franklin, Keene, and Claremont.

Numerous artifacts have been discovered, including axes, knives, adzes, pestles, engraved stones, spearheads, arrowheads, gouges, and chisels. Occasionally pipes and pottery fragments have been dug up. The lake region and the Merrimack Valley have been the most prolific sources of relics. The more important collections are at the home of Mary A. Proctor of Franklin, the Manchester Institute of Arts and Sciences, the Manchester Historic Association, the Peabody Museum at Salem, and the Peabody Museum at Harvard University.

In general, the New Hampshire aborigines conformed to the general pattern of the eastern woodland Indians. Living in wigwams rudely constructed of bark and skins, they ranged the forest hunting and fishing while their women cultivated the near-by fields. Hunting was carried on by means of the bow, spear, and "culheag" or log trap. Fish were taken at weirs, in nets, or by the spear aided by the flare of a pine knot. In agriculture the Indians had made enough progress to be of invaluable aid to "the white man when he came." Maize or Indian corn was the chief crop, and the settler found most useful the Indian injunction to plant "when the leaves of the white oak are as big as the ear of a mouse." "Girdling" or cutting a ring deep enough in a tree to kill the foliage, thus letting in the light, was another device learned from the primitive agriculturist and appreciated by the pioneer. Maize was the staple, but Indian agriculture also included beans, squashes, and pumpkins. Tobacco seems to have been raised in New England as far north as the Kennebec Valley. Corn when pounded in a mortar was known as hominy; mixed with beans it was called succotash. Mortars were manufactured of wood or stone; a glacial pothole, when small enough, was sometimes used—an example of such an outdoor mortar is at Willow Hill in Franklin.

The religion of these primitives was animism, or belief in spirits representing nature in its various phases. The name "Manitou" was given to a spirit which might be good or evil, greater or lesser. Like many other savages, the New Hampshire Indians had their story of the deluge. Josselyn, in his "Account of Two Voyages to New England," reported the following version:

Ask them whither they go when they dye, they will tell you pointing with their finger to Heaven beyond the white mountains, and do hint at Noah's Flood, as may be conceived by a story they have received from Father to Son, time out of mind, that a great while agon their Countrey was drowned, and all the People and other Creatures in it, only one Powaw and his Webb foreseeing the Flood fled to the white mountains carrying a hare along with them and so escaped; after a while the Powaw sent the Hare away, who not returning emboldened thereby they descended, and lived many years after, and had many Children, from whom the Countrie was filled again with Indians.

Several Indian sachems left their impression upon New Hampshire history and legend. The greatest leader was Passaconaway, head of the Penacook Confederacy when the first Europeans came. His attitude was uniformly friendly to the newcomers, and he pursued a moderate policy in the face of white aggressions. Passaconaway gained considerable reputation as a medicine man or "powwow," as he was termed in the seventeenth century in this particular region. According to one chronicler he could "... make the water burne, the rocks move, the trees dance, metamorphise himself into a flaming man. He will do more; for in winter, when there are no green leaves to be got, he will burne an old one to ashes, and putting those into water, produce a new green leaf, which you shall not only see, but substantially handle and carrie away; and make of a dead snake's skin a living snake, both to be seen, felt, and heard. This I write but upon the report of the Indians who confidently affirm stranger things.

As an old man he delivered a valedictory speech urging his followers to maintain peace with their new neighbors. This speech has been variously reported. One rather fanciful version is given by Potter:

The oak will soon break before the whirlwind... I commune with the Great Spirit. He whispers me now — "Tell your people, Peace, Peace, is the only hope of your race. I have given fire and thunder to the pale faces for weapons — I have made them plentier than the leaves of the forest, and still shall they increase! These meadows they shall turn with the plow — these forests shall fall by the axe — the pale faces shall live upon your hunting grounds, and make their villages upon your fishing places!" The Great Spirit says this, and it must be so! We are few and powerless before them! We must bend before the storm! The wind blows hard! The old oak trembles! Its branches are gone! Its sap is frozen! It bends! It falls! Peace, Peace, with the white man — is the command of the Great Spirit — and the wish — the last wish — of Passaconaway.

Upon his death Passaconaway passed from history into legend, which relates that he was received into heaven after he had been transported to the summit of Mount Washington in a sledge drawn by wolves. It is probable that this Elijah story was invented originally for another Indian and another mountain, and then transferred to Passaconaway. His name has been preserved in New Hampshire by a village and a mountain. Passaconaway was succeeded by his son Wonalancet, who strove to keep the peace even during King Philip's War. Unable to restrain his followers, he retired from leadership in 1685. A New Hampshire range and village perpetuate his name. His nephew, Kancamagus, after some provocation led the assault on Dover in 1689; in spite of this, a mountain bears his name. Another opponent similarly honored is Paugus, the doughty foe of Lovewell in the celebrated fight near Fryeburg, who can claim a peak in the Sandwich Range thanks to the efforts of Lucy Larcom, poet and friend of Whittier.

The most celebrated of New Hampshire Indian legends has the least historical basis. From the top of the beautiful mountain that keeps his memory green, Chocorua is supposed to have launched his ineffective curse against the white men. This legend has been told in several forms and is the subject of a celebrated painting, The Death of Chocorua, by Thomas Cole.

  1. Federal Writers' Project of the Works Progress Administration for Massachusetts, New Hampshire: A Guide to the Granite State, American Guide Series, The Riverside Press, Cambridge, Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, 1938.




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