The People of the Merrimack Valley
The Native population, particularly here in New England, has long been overlooked. Ours schools, if they cover Native American history, barely scratch the surface. History has shown that if it weren’t for the Native People living here when the Europeans arrived, many of our ancestors wouldn’t have survived the ordeal they faced. With this article, I hope to shed some light on the lives of the People living in the Merrimack Valley before and during European colonization.
Six hundred years ago, there were no such things as “New Hampshire,” “Massachusetts” or the “Merrimack Valley.” There was only Wobanaki, or “Dawnland.” The People who lived here were known as the Alnobak, or “People of the Dawn.” We now call them the Abenaki. Who are these Native People and how did they live before the arrival of the Europeans?
The area now defined by Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine and northern Massachusetts was home to the Abenaki. In this large region, which also included parts of southern Canada, the Abenaki were broken into three divisions. The “Eastern Abenaki” lived east of the White Mountains, all the way to the Atlantic Ocean and into Maritime Canada. Going west from the White Mountains, all the way to Lake Champlain, and then north into parts of Quebec and south to western Massachusetts, were the “Western Abenaki.” In the middle, in the Merrimack Valley, were the Benokoiak, which means “Falling Hill People,” referring to their main village along the Merrimack River in what is now Concord, N.H. Today they are known as the Penacook. The land of the Penacook ran from south and central New Hampshire, east to southern Maine and then south to northeastern Massachusetts.
Some historians try to put the Penacook either with the Western Abenaki or the Eastern Abenaki, but in fact, though the Penacook were Abenaki, they held a confederacy of their own, linking all of the groups residing from the Lakes Region of New Hampshire south to the mouth of the Merrimack River in present day Newburyport, Mass. The Penacook Confederacy was very capable of taking care of itself, though it would ally with other Abenaki in times of trouble, especially if the Mohawk and other Iroquois warriors were in the area. At other times, the Penacook may have fought with their Abenaki neighbors over territory. It is estimated that before the English settlement of Massachusetts in 1620, there were as many as 12,000 Penacook living in the Merrimack Valley, scattered throughout 30 different villages.
The Penacook were known by many names. In the Lower Merrimack Valley, they were known as the Pawtucket. In some places they were called the Merrimac. And the Penacook who resided in the area where present day Manchester, N.H., sits often were called Amoskeag. Though the Penacook and other Abenaki often recognized their relatives and neighbors by places where they lived, the Europeans named the Native People based on where they were encountered, or where there was a major village, thus the multitude of names for the same group.
The Penacook survived by hunting, fishing and farming, with residents of the Lower Merrimack Valley doing more farming than their northern cousins due to a more favorable climate. No matter where a village was located, every task was done with the good of the entire village in mind. In early spring, before the snow was gone, the People would venture to the maple groves and tap the trees. The gathering and boiling of the sap was the women’s job; the men did their share by gathering enough wood to keep the fires going and by repairing any equipment that had been damaged since the previous year. Once everything was ready, the men would leave the women to their work and head into the forest to hunt. Their cache of food would be depleted after a long winter, and fresh deer or moose meat would be welcomed by all.
As winter lost its grip on the frozen rivers, the spring runs of salmon, trout, eels and shad would begin. At this time of the year, entire villages would get involved. Men and women would line the banks of the Merrimack River and its tributaries to take full advantage of the bounty. Using long-handled dip nets, the villagers would scoop fish out of the water as they tried to climb waterfalls. Clubs, spears and even bows and arrows were used to dispatch exhausted fish sitting in the shallows or trapped in weirs. Larger nets, made from the woven fibers of spruce and elm and weighted with rocks to hold them on the bottom, were dragged through the deeper pools. Along the banks, women, children and elders, using stone bladed knives, cleaned and filleted the catch. The fish was then laid out on racks or over rocks to dry in the sun. Some of it would be eaten fresh, but most was stored for later use.
When the danger of spring floods had passed, gardens of squash, beans and corn were planted in the fertile floodplains. As soon as the gardens were planted, many of the People would head to the coastal area, visiting relatives and participating in the gathering of shellfish, lobsters and crabs. Some would venture out in large dugout canoes to fish and hunt small whales and seals. Still others would move deeper into the forest to hunt. Food was always a driving force. The People were always hunting, gathering, fishing and picking food items. There was no such thing as excess, especially when forced to face the long, cold New England winters.
Summer would find the People heading back to their villages. Tending to gardens would be the women’s main priority. Women and children also would spend time collecting a multitude of berries and wild fruit, which was ripening at this time. Blueberries, raspberries, blackberries, strawberries and wild plums were harvested. What wasn’t eaten or used in cooking right away was dried and stored for winter. It was during the summer when young men were taught to be warriors and providers for the village. Lacrosse, often called “the little brother of war,” was a highly physical sport that honed the skills of the warrior. Young boys often were taken by their uncles and taught to use a sling, lance and bow and arrow. Daily lessons would teach them the skills needed to be a worthy man of the village. When their teacher thought they were ready, these new hunters would be allowed to test their skills on small game. Anything killed by the new hunters would be added to the pot for all, thus teaching valuable lessons about sharing and putting the needs of others first. The Penacook liked to have fun, so anything that brought the People together, such as dancing, was encouraged. If the spring had been plentiful, summer was a time of little worry.
Late summer and early autumn was harvest time. Acorns, walnuts and beechnuts filled the forest and were ready to be gathered and added to the food stores. Crops from the gardens were being harvested, dried and stored. Hunters were out gathering all of the meat they could before winter. Besides deer and moose, the hunters would take waterfowl of all kinds and small game, including rabbits and squirrels. Enough food needed to be put away by each family to see them through the winter. As the days grew shorter and the nights cooler, it was time for the large village to begin separating into smaller family groups. Moving deep into the forest, each family group, or extended family group, would establish a winter residence in a sheltered area that would provide protection from the worst of the winter’s fury. This was done because it is much easier to survive when you have only a few mouths to feed. During winter, game becomes scarce, and what is found can become depleted quickly.
Once in their winter quarters, the men and women took on chores they didn’t have time for during the warmer months. Men often would spend time making new arrows, repairing tools and telling stories to educate the young ones. Women would take this time to repair or make new clothing and teach the girls the skills they would need when they took a husband. There also would be more stories, usually told by the elders. Men and women both would share the sacred tales that had been passed down from generation to generation and recounted the history of the People. If the weather permitted, the men sometimes would go to a nearby pond or section of frozen river and try to fish through the ice.
With most of their villages located inland, the Penacook had very little direct contact with the Europeans before 1620, but that is not to say they didn’t feel the effects of their presence. Through trade with other Native groups, the Penacook obtained items brought to North America by the English, French and Dutch, but it was not these material things that affected the Penacook most. It was the diseases that the Europeans brought with them. As early as the 1500s these illnesses started taking their toll, not only on the Penacook, but on other Native nations, as well. Between 1564 and 1570, an unknown epidemic struck the Northeast, followed by an outbreak of typhus in 1586. Around 1614, English slave traders visited the Wampanoag villages in southern Massachusetts, starting yet another epidemic. The disease spread quickly through the Native American population of southern New England and then made its way north. The disease hit the Penacook, leaving a 75 percent mortality rate in some areas. By 1620 the Penacook population was down to an estimated 2,500. In 1631, a smallpox epidemic began in the Merrimack Valley and quickly spread throughout New England. Another wave of smallpox began in 1639. This was followed by influenza in 1647, smallpox in 1649 and diphtheria in 1659. It is estimated that the Penacook population in 1675 was down to about 1,200. By 1676, because of disease and military conflict with the English, the Penacook were forced to abandon the Lower Merrimack Valley.
Once embraced by Penacook leaders, the English were now becoming unwelcome guests. Every year, more and more English settlers pushed their way up through the Merrimack Valley. Eventually, the Penacook were forced to their northern limits. By the 1750s, most of the Penacook had been displaced from their homeland and had joined up with other Abenaki nations in Maine, Vermont and Canada. Though they had been driven from the Merrimack Valley, the Penacook were not through with the English. They became their worst nightmare, leading raids against settlements throughout New England and taking active roles in the wars waged during the 1600s. The Penacook’s goal was to re-claim their homeland in the Merrimack Valley. They never succeeded.
After years of trying to live peacefully with the colonists, the Penacook and many of their neighbors had been pushed to their limits. With their numbers severely reduced by diseases, the Penacook were unable to hold their ground against the encroaching newcomers. Many of the Penacook left the area to join up with other Native Americans, but many more stayed behind, hiding their “Indian-ness” and living within the dominant society, all the while trying to keep their old ways alive. Today, many families are finding out that they are descendants of these proud People, and that is a good thing.
( Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared in the May 2010 issue of Merrimack Valley Magazine. )
Caduto, Michael. “A Time Before New Hampshire”. University Press of New England, 2003.
Calloway, Colin G. “The Western Abenakis of Vermont, 1600-1800”. University of Oklahoma Press, 1990.
Mashantucket Pequot Museum, Mashantucket, CT 06339
Russell, Howard. “Indian New England Before the Mayflower”. University Press of New England, 1980.
Wiseman, Frederick Matthew. “The Voice of the Dawn”. University Press of New England, 2001