Gathering and Interactions of Peoples, Cultures, and Ideas
Native Americans in Vermont: the Abenaki
by Elise A. Guyette
During the last Ice Age, a two-mile high glacier flowed across Vermont. The great wall of ice crawled over the tall and rocky mountains, scraping and rounding them, while also widening valleys and carving gaps through the mountains. After thousands of years, the climate began to warm. The melting glacier left boggy wetlands, gravel and rocks covering the ground. As soils slowly formed, tundra grasses and sedges grew. Melting ice filled the many giant holes dug by the glacier, and cold, clear lakes dotted the land.
On the eastern side of the mountains, a valley with active volcanoes had existed for millions of years. (White River Junction stands on what used to be a volcanic island.) During the Ice Age, the glacier widened the valley, and as the ice melted it became a 407 miles long lake. Geologists call it Lake Hitchcock. Today it has shrunk to become the Connecticut River. The glacier also left an area of rolling hills on the eastern side of the mountains (the Eastern Foothills) with many lakes, ponds, and rivers.
Another huge lake formed in central Vermont, Lake Stowe. Vermont's largest western body of water, Lake Vermont, expanded as the glacier melted. The water could not drain north into the Atlantic (as it does today) because the shrinking glacier blocked it. Finally, about twelve thousand years ago, the glacier disappeared from the St. Lawrence Seaway, and the waters of the Atlantic overflowed into the Champlain Valley, turning Lake Vermont into the salty Champlain Sea. The sea covered 20,500 square miles.
The many lakes and rivers throughout the land were watering holes for herds of migrating mammals and flocks of birds. As the region warmed up, spruce and fir trees began to grow. Large mammals such as moose-elk, mastodons, caribou, and musk ox began to browse on the tundra for food. Into this land walked Vermont's first human settlers. We call them the Paleoindians, from the Greek word palaios meaning "ancient."
There are at least three different ideas about the migration of the Paleoindians into North America:
However they got to the Americas, Paleoindians were living in what is now Vermont about 11,300 years ago (9,300 BCE). Small groups of families migrated seasonally to hunt and gather various floras, gradually moving from south to north along the Vermont waterways. Their way of life was successful, and so the population grew and families needed new territories. This is what "pushed" them out of their original territory. The "pull" came from the big game animals such as caribou and mastodons that migrated onto the newly created Vermont plains. The Paleoindians were expert hunters and gatherers with much knowledge of animals and plants. They skillfully tracked their prey into its new territory and found plants and medicines to sustain them.
Family groups lived in rock outcroppings or shelters made of saplings or, perhaps, mastodon bones covered with animal skins. They used stone tools such as chert and quartzite, which were durable enough to cut through animal skin and bone, but brittle enough to be chipped into sharp-edged tools, such as spear points and scrapers. Many people used chert from a quarry near what is now St. Albans and quartzite from a quarry in Monkton.
We also know that part of their seasonal migrations were for trading purposes. Chert from as far away as Maine and New York and jasper from Pennsylvania have been found in Vermont. Tools made from Vermont stones have been found from Massachusetts to Maine. In later periods, copper from as far away as the Great Lakes shows up in Vermont. Ideas about projectile points, stone bowls, and burial customs were also borrowed back and forth. However, just how much Paleoindians relied on trade of goods and ideas is still a mystery.
Paleoindian sites that have been excavated in Ludlow and East Highgate help us understand the Paleoindian way of life in Vermont. Tools show us that they fished and gathered plants, but hunting seemed more important since tools found were more suited to hunting big land animals than marine animals. Paleoindians ate a lot of caribou because there were abundant and easier and safer to kill than some of the larger mammals. Although rarely hunted in the northeast, a mastodon would provide an immense amount of hide, meat, and fat to last through the winter.
Change and Survival
The hunt was not always successful, however, and Paleoindian families did not always eat well. Big game became increasingly scarce about 9,000 years ago. Again, the scenery and the characters began to change. Spruce and fir forests continued to grow, but pines and oak grew too. The Vermont forests became thicker, and the grassy plains began to disappear. The large land animals that the Paleoindians hunted either became extinct or moved north, as the glacier receded, to find better grazing land. Smaller animals moved into the new forests: foxes, lynx, martens, deer, moose, beaver, and cougar.
The Paleoindian way of life could not survive these great changes. The people had to adapt to the changing environment, and gradually learned new ways to live. Their new way of life, called Archaic by archaeologists, included hunting smaller mammals, fishing, and gathering plants as important activities. Gradually over the next few thousand years people developed new weapons to hunt the smaller animals and new fishing tools and techniques. New kinds of housing and clothing reflected the natural resources in the new environment. They also developed new tools and techniques for collecting and processing wild plants. Trade in goods and ideas also contributed to changing ways of living.
By about three thousand years ago, a new Woodland culture was thriving. Analysis of archaeological sites along the rivers and lakes help us understand the lives of these early Vermonters. Until recently, all the Early Woodland sites in Vermont have been excavated in the Champlain Valley. However, an Early Woodland site was unexpectedly uncovered in Canaan when the town began to replace an old bridge. Many Late Woodland sites have been found in the Connecticut River Valley including Sumner's Falls (Hartland), Skitchewaug (Springfield), Warrel Farm (East Barnet), Fort Dummer (Brattleboro) and Great Bend (Vernon). This is the culture that the Europeans met when they first set foot in the Green Mountains. Let us look at the Abenaki way of life in 1600, just before the Europeans arrived.
Abenaki Life: 1600
The Abenaki of the Late Woodland period were part of a larger Wabanaki group that extended throughout most of Vermont, into Quebec, and included all of New Hampshire and Maine. In Vermont, the western Abenaki divided themselves into three major bands: Missiskoik (in the Champlain Valley) and Sokwaki and Cowasuck (in the Connecticut River Valley). By the Late Woodland period, extensive settlements existed in all of Vermont's lake and river valleys.
The Abenaki family bands lived together in villages with as many as 1,000 people per village with longhouses for up to forty people. Summer, fall, winter, and spring were the occasions for seasonal migrations to various locations within the family or band's territory for hunting, fishing, fowling, gathering, trading and recreation.
During the coldest part of the winter, the families stayed in the village. The women made new clothes, tools, and moccasins, which were decorated with porcupine quills, while the men repaired and made new tools and weapons. Even if the Abenaki were at war with other nations, battles were suspended in the depths of winter. In late winter a hunting season began, to augment dwindling supplies with the larger mammals, mainly deer, moose, and bear. Hunters traveled to their separate hunting territories, somewhere within the group's lands. They hunted on one fourth of the territory each year to give the animal population time to recover and to maintain a balance between human needs and animal needs.
When spring arrived, the people returned to their village for fishing, fowling, and plant gathering. In the Connecticut River Valley, they fished for salmon and shad, which were abundant at this time of year as they migrated upstream to spawn. The largest salmon weighed as much as thirty-five pounds. Many birds, such as geese, ducks, gulls, and passenger pigeons, were also on the move along their ancient flyways, and Abenaki men used decoys and blinds to hunt waterfowl.
While the men were fowling and fishing, the women gathered spring plants and did the sugaring. They filled green birch bark kettles or pottery containers with the sap and boiled it, placing hot embers or heated stones directly into the sap. The women boiled it down and formed it into sugar cakes for easy storage. Later in the spring, the women, expert herbalists, gathered young ferns and other plants for food and medicine.
When it was warm enough, in April or May, the planting season began. During the Woodland period the three sisters, corn-beans-squash, became an important component of a diversified diet. In the southern Connecticut Valley, farming was a more important way of life than in the north or in western Vermont. The earliest known farm site is on the Connecticut River in Springfield. The people, probably the women, cultivated, harvested, and stored vegetables in pits beneath small houses, while the men were in charge of tobacco. The change from gathering to farming meant they did not need as many seasonal migrations to hunt and gather, so they stayed in the villages more than their northern neighbors. In the north hunting and gathering stayed more important than farming, perhaps because of the shorter growing season.
In summer, the people fished, hunted small mammals, and gathered wild plants. Especially important were berries and nuts. Along with other plants, these provided food and medicine for the people. Cattails were especially important. Abenakis ate the young shoots, flowers, and seeds; they used the pollen for flour. Mothers wrapped cattail-down around the babies for diapers and warmth. They used sharpened stems for darts and knives and wove them into mats. Summer was also a good time for making pottery.
During the summer months the Abenaki traveled to visit and trade with friendly people from other villages and regions. Short-distance trade kept relations friendly among the bands and helped to solve conflicts. Over the years, a large trading network developed between the Abenaki and other nations of the northeast, Canada, and the mid-west, although it seems to have lost some if its significance by 1600.
In the fall, women harvested the crops, dried them and stored them in bark-lined pits for the winter months. They also dried meat and fish, berries, and nuts. At the end of the harvest, everyone celebrated at the harvest ceremonies. The families then returned to their upland hunting territory to get a fresh supply of meat and skins for the winter. By the time the winter snows blanketed the ground, the people were back at their village. The food pits were full, and everyone settled in for the storytelling season during the long Vermont winter.
Conflict and Government
The Abenaki had friendly relations with most area groups. The exception was their long-time enemies, the Iroquois. The Abenaki called the Iroquois people "man-eaters," since they occasionally practiced cannibalism on their enemies. The Iroquois raided the Abenaki often across Lake Bitawbagok (later called Champlain).
Before the Abenaki declared war on an enemy, they held council meetings. Men, women, and children who had reached puberty were allowed to speak on the matter, and everyone voted. In this way, the warriors knew that the whole community was behind them when they went into battle. First the men's council decided whether or not they wanted to wage war. Then the women's council met to make the final decision - since they were the ones who might have to live without fathers, husbands, brothers, and sons. If the women made a decision in favor of war, the men's council chose a war chief. Warriors did not have to obey him, however; he had to persuade them that his plan was the best one.
The Iroquois were much more militant than the Abenaki and seemed to have forced the Abenaki into paying tribute to them, often in the form of wampum. Apparently, the councils had grown weary of war with the much more numerous Iroquois. The Abenaki paid tribute in exchange for peace. In this way, the Abenaki way of life was preserved. (please see correspondence below)
In addition to the war council and chief, the Abenaki also had a civil government and chief. The governing council was made up of village elders and the chief. The council selected a wise and inspirational chief who ran the council meetings and represented the community with outside groups. No one had to obey the chief; Abenakis believed that no one had the right to tell others what to do. The chief led by persuasion, and the people followed by choice. The chief served for life, unless the council ousted him or her for bad behavior. When a chief grew old, the council started thinking about a successor. By the time the old chief died, someone else was ready to assume leadership.
This way of life worked well. Gradually the people learned of new plants and developed farming methods. Styles of spear points, pottery, and clothing changed much as styles continue to change today among all the peoples of Vermont. But -- as long as the environment stayed about the same, and the people had what they needed -- what worked well was favored over change. At the time the Europeans arrived, the Abenaki had a healthier diet, less violence in their lives, and more time for fun (which is usual among hunter-gatherers) than the Europeans did. They also lived slightly longer than the European people. The arrival of Europeans and the quickness of the ensuing changes, however, marked the beginning of rapid and drastic changes to a way of life that had persisted for thousands of years.
An email letter from J. Mehigan, Cowassuck Abenaki regarding this article.
Elise A. Guyette response:
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