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Who First Lived in the Area We Now Call New Hampshire and Vermont?

By Sarah Rooker on March 24, 2014 in Flow of History
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by Elise Guyette

The area we now call New Hampshire and Vermont was originally inhabited by various groups of Abenaki people. The Alnôbak (People of the Dawn) homeland, called Wôbanakik, comprises all of both states and parts of northern Massachusetts, southern Québec, and western Maine. It has been the Abenaki homeland for at least 10,000 years, and some would say since creation. Abenaki creation and transformer traditions are closely linked to Lake Champlain. A wide variety of place names throughout this region indicate the longstanding presence of the Abenaki when Europeans and Americans began to arrive. Many thousands of people in the region today claim some Abenaki heritage. Local Abenaki tribes are seeking official government recognition.

Scholars believe that when Samuel de Champlain explored the region in the early 17th century, approximately 10,000 Abenakis lived in what is now Vermont, and 12,000 lived in what is now New Hampshire. Their numbers had diminished considerably from disease and deliberate withdrawal to more remote places by the 1760s, when Euro-American colonization started to increase rapidly. The Abenaki strongly resisted the settlers’ encroachment into Wôbanakik. They relied on their decentralized social structure based on family bands, and their intimate knowledge of the land, to avoid contact as they wished but also to attack settlers who they believed were violating mutual agreements about sharing space in the region.

Place names, stories and oral traditions, and archaeological remains and artifacts provide vivid evidence of the Abenakis’ history and culture in Vermont and New Hampshire. Place names link to specific attributes of the land, as native peoples developed deep understandings of how wealth and wisdom “sits in places.” Stories and traditions teach about moral lessons and the history of the people that happened in those places. Archaeological evidence enables researchers to determine dates and sites of activity, and provides insight into lifeways and culture. The Abenaki shared their knowledge of how to live in Wôbanakik with the settlers who came to live there. From those meaningful place names, to foods like maple sugar, wild onions, and fiddleheads, to tools like snowshoes, many aspects of our contemporary lives bear the imprint of the first people who called Vermont and New Hampshire home.