Written by Donna and John Moody, Winter Center for Indigenous Traditions, Norwich, VT.
Vital Communities is located in White River Junction, VT, on the western side of the Kwanitekw [Connecticut River] in N’dakinna [Our Land] in the middle of the ancient Abenaki Nation homeland which includes Vermont, New Hampshire, northern Massachusetts, western Maine, and southern Quebec. The Alnôbak [the People], as we are called in Alnôbaiwi [Abenaki language], have been called the Wôbanakiak [People of the East/Dawnland] or Abenaki since ancient times by Indigenous relatives in the east and Indigenous Peoples as far away as Hopi and Diné [Navajo] Country, Alaska, and Tierra del Fuego in South America.
Vital Communities serves 69 towns and villages in Grafton, Sullivan, and Cheshire Counties in New Hampshire and Caledonia, Orange, Windsor, and Windham Counties in Vermont. This region extends from Ryegate, Vermont, and Bath, New Hampshire, in the north; New London, New Hampshire, in the east; Walpole, New Hampshire, and Westminster, Vermont, in the south; and Bethel, Vermont, in the west. The region is bisected by the Connecticut River and includes the White, Mascoma, Ompompanoosuc, Wells, Waits, Ammonoosuc, Baker, Ottauquechee, Sugar, Black, Saxtons, and Williams Rivers, and many smaller streams.
From 1790 to 1970, the censuses in Vermont and New Hampshire listed very few Indigenous People in the Abenaki homeland. Then, in the 1980-to-2010 census records, the population of Abenaki and Indigenous People increased to 17,635 for both states. Our research suggests that this dramatic population increase is virtually all due to greater reporting of local populations rather than in-migration.
This is just the beginning of the story. In every town, village, and watershed in the Vital Communities service area, and beyond in the rest of the Abenaki homeland, our research confirms that generally, at least a third of the local population in each town identify as Abenaki/Penacook or any of over one hundred (100) other Indigenous Peoples from all over the Americas. This includes most Native Peoples in the Northeast and also many of the Indigenous Peoples from northern Mexico, Canada, and Polynesia. This rich and diverse Native legacy is a vital part of the history and life of every town in the Vital Communities Service Area.
Over the years we have worked with local historical societies, town governments, planning commissions, and conservation organizations in the Upper Valley on programs, local history, and site protection. Abenaki and other Indigenous families are part of the population in Norwich, Hanover, Lebanon, Hartford/White River Junction/Wilder/Quechee/West Hartford, Sharon, Royalton, Thetford/Post Mills, West Fairlee, Fairlee, Orford/Orfordville, Piermont, Newbury, Warren, Wentworth, Tunbridge, Chelsea, Washington, Woodstock/South Woodstock, Bridgewater, Bethel, Randolph, Pomfret, Barnard, Hartland, Windsor, West Windsor, Reading, Lyme, Enfield, Canaan, Orange, Dorchester, Cornish, Plainfield/Meriden, Claremont, Grantham, Croydon, Newport, Sunapee, Goshen, Springfield (NH), New London, Rockingham/Bellows Falls/Saxtons River, Walpole, Westminister, Springfield (VT), Weathersfield/Ascutney, Windsor, West Windsor, Cavendish, and Chester. Though the hidden history of Abenaki country has just begun to emerge in the Upper Valley and wider region, the greater Upper Valley region has been and still is Indian Country!From ancient times to 1760, the Abenaki Nation of numerous villages and thousands of extended families lived as an independent Native Nation recognized by other Native Nations and the Dutch, French, British, and other European colonizers. Though some parts of the homeland in the Seacoast of present-day New Hampshire and Maine, southern Vermont and New Hampshire as well as northern Massachusetts, and Quebec, were shared with the encroaching English and French colonists from the 1630s on, the original homeland has never been sold or given away.
This is the sovereign homeland of the Abenaki Nation and People. Abenaki traditions speak clearly of our being here since the beginning. Some archaeologists and linguists, as recently as the last 40 years, stated that the Abenaki and all of our Algonquin language group relations from California and the High Plateau to the Plains, Great Lakes, Hudson Bay, the Maritimes in eastern Canada, and down the east coast to Virginia are no more than 1,500 years old. More recently, a few scholars have stated that the Abenaki may be related to Indigenous Peoples who are documented living here for the last 9,000 years. This date keeps moving back as new carbon dates of our sites appear. The major Abenaki site recently documented in Keene, NH, has been dated to the mid-12,000’s BP (Before Present) time period. The Abenaki peoples, along with many of our cousins in the Northeast, state unequivocally that: “We have always been here, and we will always be here.” Oral traditions of the Abenaki and our cousins including the Wampanoag of southeastern Massachusetts remember the glacial times (14,000 to 35,000 B.P.) The Abenaki and our cousins even have names for the megafauna including the mammoths and mastodons known to have lived here in ancient times. There are many other linguistic and traditional indications of great Abenaki antiquity here in this region.
In the American Revolution from 1775 to 1783, George Washington, the Marquis de Lafayette, Jacob Bailey, Timothy Bedell, Moses Hazen, John Allan, and many other leaders of the American resistance agreed with the Abenaki and our cousins the Penobscot and Passamaquoddy of Maine, that we would retain our villages and homelands in exchange for helping in the defense of the northern frontier against the British. Our ancient villages of Missisquoi in Northwestern Vermont and Koasek/Coos on the Upper Connecticut River were both explicitly acknowledged by the Americans and their allies as Abenaki villages of longstanding which would remain in Abenaki hands in perpetuity. The Penobscot and Passamaquoddy Nations retained three villages in Maine after the Revolution following a 30-year struggle for non-Native acknowledgment down to 1800. In Abenaki country, the word of the new American colonials was not kept.
The Abenaki Nation was largely driven underground in the 1760-to-1850 period. The People remained in every town and watershed in the homeland down to the present day. In the 1970s, the Abenaki Nation of Missisquoi in northwestern Vermont and the Koasek Abenaki of the Koasek Traditional Band of the Sovereign Abenaki Nation in Thetford, Vermont, and the Upper Connecticut River Valley returned to public awareness. We formed the Abenaki Nation coalition with many Abenaki extended families and communities to protect and care for the People and the homeland as well as to facilitate the protection of Abenaki burial grounds and sacred sites, and to return Abenaki burials, grave goods, and sacred items back home for reburial. From the 1970s to 2010, the census population of Abenaki and other Indigenous People in Vermont and New Hampshire grew from less than 700 to 17,635 in the census records.
In 2008, the Bureau of Indian Affairs Federal Acknowledgement Project rejected the Abenaki Nation of Missisquoi petition for federal recognition with extensive involvement of the Vermont Attorney General’s office. In 2011 and 2012, the Vermont Legislature acknowledged four Abenaki communities including, the Abenaki Nation of Missisquoi, the Elnu Tribe, the Nulhegan Tribe, and the Koasek Band of the Koas.
The original Koasek Traditional Band of the Sovereign Abenaki Nation, which is still based in Thetford, VT, was blocked from being acknowledged by the Vermont Legislature and three of the four new state-recognized tribes in 2016. The Abenaki Nation of New Hampshire and the Cowasuck Band of Pennacook/Abenaki People are long-standing Abenaki groups that are neither state nor federally recognized. There are hundreds of Abenaki extended families in this area and the wider homeland who are still here. In Canada, there are two Abenaki Nation communities at Odanak and Wolinak which are both federally recognized in Canada as First Nations.
Winter Center for Indigenous Traditions: Abenaki Language Preservation
With Joseph Elie Joubert, Abenaki Elder; Jesse Bruchac, Abenaki Language Teacher; John Moody, Winter Center for Indigenous Traditions, Terry Boone, Three Rivers Group
Recorded at CATV in White River Junction VT on March 28, 2014
Local Stories and Traditions
In the 1750s, before the flood of English settlers from southern New England was poised to arrive, there were several Abenaki villages in the Upper Valley. The 19th-to-20th century non-Native myth holds that there were no Abenaki or Indians here and the land was a tree-covered “wilderness” entire in 1760. In truth, many older 18th-to-early-19th-century local accounts and traditions extensively document Indigenous Peoples and our living, and subsistence, grounds.
Among the several villages and Abenaki extended family enclaves in the Upper Valley in the 1750s to 1760s were large communities in North Springfield, VT, in Canaan, NH, at Canaan Street Lake, at Pompanoosuc in Norwich and Thetford, VT, at Lyme, NH, and in several enclaves in the heart of Koasek from Bradford and Orford to Woodsville, Haverhill, Newbury, and Ryegate.
In the 1760s, New France had fallen to the English, and the English settlement of the Upper Valley began in earnest. In the post-1760 period, the Abenakis were everywhere. Norwich elders James and Harriet (Partridge) Brigham told their son Fred in the early 20th century that the “Indians were numerous in the area.” Generally, Abenaki families and communities were referred to as “Indian” or “Indians” down to the 1970s in the Upper Valley and wider region.
The first English settler in Sharon, VT, overwintered in 1762 to 1763 with an Abenaki family on the Sharon Flats south of town. They shared a cabin and the Abenaki traditional gift-giving sustained everyone over the winter and made a deep impression. Larry Howard, the artist and historian from Lebanon, NH, recounts that one branch of his Abenaki ancestors lived in Sharon, VT, in the late-18th to mid-19th centuries. Several other Sharon families also acknowledge their Abenaki heritage including the Dyer/Boles family of Abenaki basket makers.
A local descendant of the first Norwich, VT, settlers who identifies as Abenaki, states that when her English forebears arrived by canoe her Abenaki ancestors were on the riverbank to help them up and begin a vital, 200-year collaboration. Abbie Metcalfe, the 20th-century Norwich farmer and librarian, narrated close Abenaki/settler relations in South Tunbridge and Royalton, VT, in the late 18th century where her Metcalfe ancestors lived with the “Indians.” The Metcalfe family retained an old eight-row, open-pollinated corn that they grew annually on their Dutton Hill Road hill farm in Norwich. Until the 1940s, these old, locally adapted, open-pollinated corn varieties were a staple in this region. Abenaki gifts of food, lifeways, knowledge, and understanding in many local towns were vital for the survival of the early settlers and are a local taproot of our shared life to the present.
The Norwich Historical Society has created a driving tour and podcast of Norwich, VT, on 1760s-to-early-1800s history which can be heard online, into which we wove some local Abenaki history. ‘Wilderness’ myths not-with-standing, about one-third of Hartford, Norwich, Hanover, Thetford, Lyme, North Springfield, and other towns in the Upper Connecticut River Valley, and the wider region were cleared grass and farmland kept by the Abenaki in the 1760s. The heart of this ancient land management tradition includes the regular burning of grass and shrublands to keep them open. These traditions from the Americas to Australia are now being remembered and are returning to use to prevent large firestorms as the drying times grow around the world.
From Sharon, VT, there is a tradition of a village of Abenakis at the mouth of the White River in the 1760s which provided transportation down the Connecticut River to Fort # 4 in Charlestown, NH. Daniel Lyman of Sharon noted:
There were a number of little settlements, Royalton, Woodstock, and at the junction of the White River, which runs through the town of Sharon, was an Indian village. Nothing but trails in these early days connected these somewhat remote hamlets. Mostly the few inhabitants were friendly with the Indians. Surveyor [Simeon] Howe was particularly so with the tribe at the junction of the rivers. Mr. Howe used to take his bag of corn or what on his back, walk to the junction, and the Indians would take him in a canoe down the Connecticut to what then was at Charleston No 4 to have his grain ground, then take him back to their village, from which he would walk back to his cabin, fourteen miles away.
Local oral traditions in Hartford/White River Junction confirm this account. Many local families in Hartford, White River Junction, Wilder, Quechee, and West Hartford acknowledge our Abenaki and other Native histories. The Hartford Historical Society was founded in 1987 by 14 local residents including an Abenaki elder and a Nipmuc descendant. In the Hartford/White River Junction town government, schools, and community today there are Abenaki, Cherokee, Nipmuc, Anishnabe (Ojibwe/Chippewa), Shawnee, Houma, Mohican, and many other Native peoples represented. This long story has many remarkable facets and threads.
It is very likely that the White River Abenaki village was one place where the early settlers in the Upper Valley got their birch bark and dugout canoes for effective travel on the rivers, lakes, and ponds of the region. When the famous Dartmouth dropout John Ledyard made a dugout canoe to travel down the Connecticut River in May 1773, he most likely had substantial Abenaki assistance as well. Similar gifts of local adaptability including the making of odabôganak [toboggans], snowshoes, baskets, bags, and many other essential tools long used to live in the Abenaki homeland became an essential part of non-Native life as well. This vital sharing and trading way of life continues to the present day in the Upper Valley.
Mascoma, for whom the River and Lake are named, was a Sokwaki Abenaki leader of the early 18th century who was widely known to non-Native settlers in the Connecticut River Valley. In the 1750s, there was an Abenaki village at Canaan Street Lake in Canaan. At the time of first settlement in the early 1760s, a cleared cornfield was found just south of Wilder Falls in West Lebanon, NH. Several areas from West Lebanon to Hanover in the Indian Ridge area and over to Mount Support are identified and associated with Abenaki and Native use and presence from the 1760s to the present. Larry Howard, the artist and historian of Lebanon, stated proudly that he had Abenaki heritage on “both my mother’s and father’s side.” The famous Odanak Abenaki singer and filmmaker Alanis Obomsawin was born in Lebanon on August 31, 1932. Several Abenaki and other Native families with local roots as well as connections to the Missisquoi community in northwestern Vermont live in Lebanon and West Lebanon to the present day.
From the 1770s on, Moors Charity School and Dartmouth included Abenaki and Native students from the eastern United States and Canada. The Indian Ridge section of Hanover and Lebanon has always been a place where Abenaki families and the families of students attending Dartmouth could live. This also included the local African and African-American families. As other elementary and secondary schools were founded, especially Thetford Academy in Thetford, VT, and Newport Academy in Newport, NH, Abenaki, and other Native students also attended these schools. In the 1850s, the Abenaki linguist and minister Peter Paul Osunkhirhine fondly recalled his years in Moors Charity School, Newport Academy, and the Hanover Congregational Church in the 1820s.
At Quechee on the Otauquechee River, the Otaugwedak Odanak [“Village at the Gorge”] was covered in tall white pines by the 1760s. This suggests that it was cleared ground and the location of a substantial Abenaki village about 100 years before in the 1600s. Upriver in Woodstock and Bridgewater, and down Kedron Brook to South Woodstock there was an Abenaki network of extended families in the 1760s. Nearby in Hartland, VT, there were also several Abenaki neighborhoods where the Abenaki basket maker Sally Soison and others lived in the early years. Local African-American families in Woodstock were also related to local Native families. The beloved physician John Masta attended the Vermont Medical Institute in Woodstock before graduating from Dartmouth Medical School in 1850 and moving north to practice medicine in Barton, VT. In the late 19th century, Joseph LaMountain, a basket maker, was a much-appreciated part of the Woodstock/South Woodstock and Pomfret communities. Several long-standing, local settler families from Woodstock recount close relations and intermarriage with local Abenaki families.
In nearby Plainfield, NH, Derek Oxford, an African-American Revolutionary War veteran, lived down to the 1790s. His wife was a Native woman from southern New England. In the early history of Cornish, Indian corn and cornbread were daily staples along with Indigenous beans, pumpkins, and maple sugaring the old way with wooden troughs and kettles. One elder and leader of the Abenaki Nation of New Hampshire today recounts her Abenaki family history associated with the uplands of Plainfield. Sumner Falls in Hartland and Plainfield has always been a special Native and non-Native fishing and gathering place.
In Meriden, NH, Kimball Union Academy had many local and other Indigenous students from the Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, and other Native Nations. Cherokee, Choctaw, and other southeastern Native families had also moved north seeking sanctuary in Abenaki country during the removal era in the early to mid 19th century. In Grafton, VT, Daisy Turner’s African and African-American history included a Cherokee grandmother before they moved to Vermont in the mid 19th century. Ohíye S’a, Charles Eastman, the famous Dakota physician, historian, and writer, began his academic career at KUA before graduating from Dartmouth College and Boston University Medical School. Two of his children also attended KUA. In Meriden, the Sadoques family, close relatives of the Watso family, lived for many years in the 20th century. These two Abenaki families also have strong ties to Claremont, Sunapee, and Newbury, NH, and Thetford/Post Mills, VT. John Watso was an honored, annual guest and teacher at Camp Billings on Lake Fairlee in Post Mills for decades in the 20th century. Other Abenaki and Indigenous extended families have close ties and histories upstream on the Sugar River and Lake Sunapee area in Croydon, Grantham, Sunapee, Newbury, Goshen, and Lempster.
There is a similar, deep history of Abenaki life associated with Ktsi Pontekw [“Great Falls”] at Bellows Falls, as well as Rockingham/Saxtons River, Walpole, Langdon, Charlestown, Weathersfield, Springfield, North Springfield, Baltimore, Cavendish, and Chester. Famous for the annual shad and salmon runs, the ancient Abenaki fishing village at Bellows Falls and Walpole is also the location of several Abenaki families down to the present day. Nearby in Springfield, VT, there is a founding tradition of Skitchewaug [“Ktsi Watso”], an Abenaki elder of the Abenaki Watso/Mountain/Hill/LaMountain family, who was buried nearby at his request at the end of his life. Skitchewaug Mountain in Springfield derives from this elder’s name. Several other major Abenaki families with ties to Koasek, Missisquoi, and Odanak are associated with this area and the substantial Abenaki village at North Springfield, VT, in the 1750s. The Black River corridor and the closely associated 17th-century Crown Point Road were major Indian trails and roads from the Upper Connecticut River Valley to and from the Champlain Valley in the late 18th century.
One of the most interesting aspects of all of these peaceful and cooperative Native/non-Native relations is the trading accounts from the Fort Number 4 area in the 1740s and 1750s that document Abenakis trading in and out of the Fort and settlement on a daily basis. We apparently particularly liked the warm bread that the Fort’s cooking oven produced. We also traded for cloth, thread, yarn, gentian violet and other dyes, whalebone, balsam syrup, various tools, and other materials. Canoes, snowshoes, baskets, and bags were no doubt traded from local Abenaki families to the new settlers as everyone lived the same, basic, Abenaki lifestyle in those early days. This included using the locally adapted corn, beans, squash, sunflowers, and other agricultural plants and the much wider knowledge of nut tree propagation and use, maple sugaring, and many other subsistence ways shared with the newcomers. There was a closeness and familiarity in those days that were largely lost in the writing of local and state histories in the 19th and 20th centuries that are still fondly remembered by many local Native and non-Native families.
In the upland areas of Canaan, Orange, Dorchester, Wentworth, and Warren there was also a similar history of close Abenaki and settler relations. The Msquamatekw [“Red Fish” or “Salmon River”] (Baker River) was another major east/west Indian trail network over to the Connecticut River Valley via Orford and Piermont from central New Hampshire. To this day there are several Abenaki communities along the old routes of these Indian trails. Lyme, NH, retained the early name of Odanaksis or “Little Village” in the Abenaki language.
Much of Koasek from Thetford, Fairlee, Bradford, Newbury, and Ryegate in the west to Lyme, Orford, Piermont, Haverhill, and Bath in the east share similar themes of Abenaki and settler relations. During the Revolution, there was a substantial network of Abenaki extended families living in Koasek from which several Abenaki ranger units were drawn that included Abenaki family members from Koasek, Missisquoi, Odanak, Pigwacket, and other old Abenaki villages. Nate Pero and his extended family and community in the Koasek area have a long history of community and public service in Thetford and other local towns from the early settlement days to the present.
The upper White River watershed from Washington, Chelsea, Tunbridge, and Royalton to Randolph, Bethel, and beyond each have their Abenaki and Indigenous family and community history. A Pequot elder and his family from Connecticut were among the earliest settlers of Randolph where their knowledge of traditional medicines was a great help to Native and non-Native families alike. Abenaki medicine is a sophisticated, practical knowledge system from birth to death that many of our families still rely on. The famous Abenaki Dartmouth graduate Francois Annance saved the life of a fellow student using his traditional skills in wound dressing, maple sugaring, and survival in the 1780s on the White River. A beloved Kanienkehaga (Mohawk) woman has been a central part of the Tunbridge Fair in Tunbridge, Vermont for many decades. Abenaki families have made our way as basket and tool handle makers in Sharon, Tunbridge, Chelsea, Thetford, and other White River Valley towns down to the mid-20th century.
As Norwich elders James and Harriet (Partridge) Brigham told their son Fred in the early 20th century, the “Indians were numerous in the area” in the post-1760 period. And as Daniel Lyman of Sharon recounted: “Mostly the few inhabitants were friendly with the Indians.” The peaceful, collaborative, and normal Native/non-Native relations were and are so extensive and familiar they were easy to forget.
So you see this is still Abenaki country! The home ground, the old trails, the names of the mountains, ponds and lakes, rivers, and villages still reflect an ancient truth: The Connecticut River, the Kwanitekw (“Long River”), does not just divide two states and nations, it unites one homeland, one people, and one Nation.
We acknowledge the ancient Abenaki Nation and People. We are aware that many newcomer families from Europe, Africa, and Asia who moved or fled to this area and the region were welcomed from the 1600s on and given Indigenous Seeds and Plants, shown the ways of Sogalikan (Maple Sugaring), introduced to many, crucial technologies and ways of living from Canoe, Toboggan, Snowshoe, and Basket Making to ways of Farming, Fishing, and living along with caring for the land, waters, and air in a good way which are still widely practiced in the Abenaki homeland. We hope we will continue to learn to care for the land and waters here in partnership with the many Abenaki Nation peoples in a better, more respectful way.
The Winter Center for Indigenous Traditions
229 Upper Loveland Road, Norwich VT 05055